HISTORY has a strange way of repeating itself sometimes.
Zimbabwe’s historic win in Sri Lanka this week bears rather uncanny similarity to 16 years ago when the African side last won away to a major team in an ODI series.
On both occasions, the host was an island nation and the tour included a single Test match.
Zimbabwe’s series win, in both instances, was engineered by a nervy chase of the required target in the deciding ODI after the hosts batted first.
And then, even more strikingly, Zimbabwe’s captain was a bowler with an appetite for runs down the batting order, and on both occasions the skipper had a hand in the run chase.
Zimbabwe’s 3-2 conquest in Sri Lanka means the side now known by its fans as the Chevrons has beaten a major team only twice away from home in an ODI series (“major” in this instance meaning any of the Test nations other than Bangladesh), the first being a memorable 2-1 defeat of New Zealand in 2001.
On both occasions, Heath Streak orchestrated the success: as captain in 2001 and as coach in 2017 — over a decade-and-a-half apart.
A Zimbabwe team coached by Australian Carl Rackemann had arrived in New Zealand in January 2001 rather unheralded but seen in the eyes of the cricketing world as a symbol of a game beginning to reach its peak in the African country.
Unshaken by the weight of expectation, Streak and his band of merry men justified that tag by not only winning that three-match ODI series 2-1, but also grinding out a draw in the Test match to record perhaps the country’s most outstanding tour abroad.
Not by a long shot among the best sides in the world; a lot of games against the Zimbabwe team were mismatches.
But one thing for sure was the massive respect the team commanded across the cricketing world. The world’s best sides were often required to dig deep for results, and were occasionally defeated at full length.
Two months before that New Zealand feat, the Zimbabwe team had returned from India where the artistry and pure grit of the great Andy Flower had forced a historic draw from a follow-on situation, his epic undefeated 232 at Nagpur proving the underlying genius of the country’s finest ever cricketer.
As for Streak, back in 2001 he was a 27-year-old super-fit pace bowler of world-class attributes who often had to single-handedly shoulder Zimbabwe’s bowling attack.
He took just four wickets in that three-match series, but his man-of-the-match contribution of 79 not out at number eight in the final ODI — together with two wickets earlier in the day at Eden Park — was the cornerstone of Zimbabwe’s stunning series win.
It is hard to believe it has been 16 years since that tour, what with Zimbabwe cricket, in a moment of utter madness, infamously pressed the self-destruct button in 2004.
With the game thrown into disarray in the post-rebel saga, we would never get to see the other heights that group of players could scale.
It is all history now. But it will be hard to ever forget how some of the underlying issues behind the 2004 fracas were so genuine and principled, yet others — as we would later see — so deceptive and driven only by greed and thirst for power.
One of the real causes of concern though had been the snail’s pace of racial integration, perhaps never more evident than on that New Zealand tour. The hugely gifted Trevor Madondo — the first black Zimbabwean to be picked for the national side as a batsman — was the only player of colour to feature in all three ODIs with fast bowler Henry Olonga joining him for the Test.
The Zimbabwean cricket authorities of the time could claim, though, with practical arguments, that they had their working integration policy and targets which were slowly but surely taking shape without affecting team structure and development at the top level.
An example was Madondo. He recorded low scores opening the batting with Alistair Campbell in the ODIs, including a duck in the final game, but seemed to come of age in the Test with a gutsy first innings half-century full of maturity. After opener Gavin Rennie top-scored with 93 for Zimbabwe, Madondo (74 not out) and Andy Flower (79 not out) were credited with helping save the Test as the tourists returned home with an ODI trophy and a commendable Test match draw.
So, what chances does this Zimbabwe side have in the lone Test against Sri Lanka?
Sri Lanka is a considerably weaker side than New Zealand were in 2001, but such achievement, given the rough times the game has gone through in Zimbabwe, is a pleasing outcome any day.
Another factor you cannot ignore is the impact of Streak.
A respected former national player whose profile dwarfs that of any member of the current team, he is a huge influence in the changing room.
For instance, from his playing days, Streak believed in a long batting line-up. In a much smaller but crucial way, it would prove one of the reasons behind Zimbabwe’s success story in the Sri Lanka ODIs.
Streak himself led by example in implementing that team philosophy as a player and captain, reinventing himself into an all-rounder of sorts in his international career.
In Streak’s first assignment as coach, current captain Graeme Cremer — to all intents and purposes a bowler — scored his maiden Test century.
More importantly, there is a new unmistakable attitude and body language in the team with traits of Streak’s era. It is things like this that can spark off a turnaround.