A FEW out of the handful of Zimbabwean cricket supporters who braved the chilly weather on Monday finally decided they had had enough and staged a mini-demonstration in the stands at Harare Sports Club. Unable to digest yet another spanking by the rookie Indian team currently touring the country, the fans decided to publicly vent their pent-up disappointments and frustrations that way.
By Enock Muchinjo
Of course, that kind of reaction by the supporters — after years of suffering in silence is totally understandable.
For far too long, 12 years to be precise, Zimbabwe’s cricket team has been our own version of what South African Sports minister Fikile Mbalula would call a “bunch of losers”. Mbalula made the remarks two years ago in apparent frustration with Bafana Bafana’s mediocrity on the football front.
Just like everywhere else in the sporting world, Zimbabwean cricket fans invest their emotions, time and money into supporting their team. They have stuck by the Chevrons through the good and bad times.
But as fans, they have a yardstick by which they measure how they think their loyalty should be rewarded. Their patience has limits. It’s their right to expect every player to give 100% every time they take to the field — win or lose.
Are the fans, though, justified to vent their ire at the players? From the supporters’ viewpoint, one could say they are.
The players are the people fans come to watch and cheer — they are the face of the game. By signing national contracts, players take oath to act as the fruition and public display of whatever policy is set in the boardroom, whatever drill is carried out at the training ground.
Going out on the park on match day is an acceptance of responsibility on the part of the players to be the nation’s sporting ambassadors, a duty that must be carried out, at all times, with outmost dedication, respect and honour to the flag. But, after examining arguments on different sides of the issue, the fact remains that cricket in Zimbabwe has been grossly mismanaged for 12 years now, and results in the same period are all but a mirror image.
For 12 years, nothing has been done for the greater good of the game. It has all been a toxic political game. Since the madness of 2004 (when 15 experienced white players were sacked and knowledgeable administrators purged in a race-tinged row), there hasn’t been a conducive environment for players to perform at the highest level.
An argument that often crops up is that there are players in the team who have played international cricket for those 12 years, but without results to show for it. It’s quite a stubborn fact to consider, but again that also is an offshoot from a decade of incompetence, mismanagement and corruption. Some radical voices among cricket lovers in the country have called for a wholesale disbandment of the team in the aftermath of the India debacle.
That will only be a stop-gap solution. Disband the team and then start again in the existing framework and appalling environment? It won’t change anything.
When you water a tree with rotten roots, you cannot then wonder why the leaves keep wilting. Put the game in competent, professional hands and you will be surprised what these players can achieve.
The sporadic shock wins over some of the top sides in the world, few and far in-between as one would expect, is ample proof of stifled ability in this Zimbabwe team. There is not enough in the support system to ensure a good, consistent run of such form.
Another source of anger against Zimbabwe’s national cricketers is the perception that they are paid quite handsomely. Granted, the cricketers could well be paid only slightly better than the average professional in the country’s corporate sector. But that is not the cricketers’ fault. The problem, we all know, don’t we, lies within the country’s floundering economy.
For goodness sake, these are international sportsmen, Test cricketers for that — of whom we demand results when they come up against well-paid, very well-motivated and highly-conditioned opponents.
Zimbabwean players are not paid nearly what they should be paid, be it in salary, match fees or allowances. In actual fact, they have gone without pay for months in recent times. For 12 years now since the game fell in the hands of inept and self-serving opportunists, such cat-and-mouse games with players has been the modus operandi of Zimbabwe Cricket (ZC), hence the player strikes we have witnessed every now and then.
Fact: Zimbabwean cricketers are the least paid of the Test-playing countries, and you could perhaps also add associate member Ireland in that bracket. And these (top teams) are the same players they are asked to go and compete against.
Away from the game, cricketers from different countries like to mingle and talk. Zimbabwe’s players hear about how their counterparts have a voice in how the game is run in their own countries. They hear about how the cricket boards in those countries put player welfare and the game at the top of the list in terms of priority. They compare with their own situation where poisonous politics and personal gains are put ahead of the game and they are disillusioned. They see how players’ interests are well represented in the other countries and they compare with their own situation, where divide-and-rule tactics are used to weaken them on the negotiating table — tactics as exploitative as using one or two embedded senior players to get rid of powerful player union leaders. And, from interacting with other players, they get to appreciate how much the game, the chief reason for the association being there, is put first ahead of everything else. They get to see how much hard work, player conditioning and preparation is put in before important games.
Then they compare with their own situation back home — a dearth of cricketing brains and capacity, so lacking that two weeks before hosting India players from outside Harare are told there is no money for them to join camp and have to compensate with individual training at home. Two weeks before an important series!
Not that it surprises anyone who follows cricket in this country. It only confirms what a lot of people know and say everyday, that there are not enough people who know cricket in the set-up. There are not enough genuine people who want to develop, promote and work for the good of the game. There is marked reluctance to invest money into the game.
It’s clear who considers themselves to be more of a priority — Zimbabwe is the only Test-playing nation where administrators earn more than players.
The fact that top-class players like Brendan Taylor and Kyle Jarvis found it sensible to quit international cricket for the English County Championship was a tragedy. Same as Solomon Mire — one of the country’s finest talents of recent times — opting to continue playing domestic cricket in Australia than accept a national contract at home. Cutting a few of the super salaries at ZC, or do away with some duplicating roles at the head office, would curb this crippling player desertion.
Zimbabwe Cricket was at its most efficient before political bigotry and madness in 2004 when it was run by a very small team of hardworking men and women dedicated to serving the game. The game and association were in a healthy financial position. On the field, the team had reached its peak and could lay claim to being a truly world-class side before the senseless racist purge.
The world’s top sides were floored from time to time at their fullest strength and a big marker had been laid against closest rivals Bangladesh and certainly such sides as Ireland. Let’s not even talk of Afghanistan, who today strike fear into our hearts and make us tremble. They were not even worth our Under-19 side’s time.
On the lower level, cricket development was booming in Zimbabwe. Board money was flowing into the grassroots of the game and results were there for all to see through the array of talent in the different representative teams.
Cricket across the country was more popular than ever. Young black boys in the high-density areas swapped soccer balls on the streets for makeshift stumps and bats. Their new role models were the Tatenda Taibus, Henry Olongas, Mpumelelo Mbangwas and Andy Flowers. With the majority black population getting hooked into the game and gradual transformation underway, the only way was up for Zimbabwean cricket. But no one had anticipated the parochial racist blow dealt to the game around 2004 — the politically-motivated internal strife that drove out sponsors, removed experienced personnel, briefly cost the country its Test status and in the long-run squeezed the life out of the game.
With the purging of experienced administrators, mostly individuals whose rich background in the sport meant they knew the intricacies of nurturing a cricketer, funding into the game’s development dried up. In the last 12 years, cricket has disappeared from the high-density educational institutions and other government schools. Gone! What an irony!
The passionate and dedicated development coaches employed by the association became miserably underpaid, if they were paid at all. Most of them are now among millions of the country’s jobless citizens. Facilities across the country, which ZC used to look after, are derelict.
Takashinga and Emakhandeni Cricket Clubs in the country’s two major cities — once citadels of black cricket and a source of the board’s referral points when the subject of development was raised — are themselves eyesores where cricket is hardly the major attraction now and the sound of ball on bat can cause some discomfort to a passerby’s eardrums due to its rarity.
If anyone is in the Highfield area and fancy a beer or just running around in a social soccer game on a weekend, go down to Takashinga. Can results at the highest level of play then withstand the weight of the massive cricket edifice crumbling and falling apart all around like this?