ZIMBABWEAN cricket was soaring from the mid-1990s up to some two years into the new millennium.
Sports Panorama with Enock Muchinjo
The national side had famously whitewashed England 3-0 in 1996-97 in a home series that heralded a peak for Zimbabwe, and sent the vanquished English into serious soul-searching.
Perhaps the finest moment of that golden era — which I had the greatest privilege of witnessing as a uniform-clad schoolboy — was defeating India in the lone Test in the summer of 1998.
To a lot of people, Zimbabwe announced its arrival as an international team of repute in that Test, humbling an Indian side with all the big guns: Tendulkar, Srinath, Azharuddin, Dravid, Kumble, Ganguly, Agarkar.
It is unbelievable what this kind of feat does to your confidence.
Tails high and believing they really now belonged to the big stage, Alistair Campbell and his merry band of men arrived in Pakistan a month later and reached yet another milestone, beating the hosts to record the African side’s first-ever away Test series win.
By the time of the 1999 World Cup in England, Zimbabwe would dare any international side in its pomp, and fancy their chances. India and South Africa were famously floored in that tournament, another sign of good health for cricket in Zimbabwe.
And when Zimbabwe drew the single Test match in New Zealand in 2000-01 and bagged the ODI series 2-1 — then drawing a home two-match Test series with India in 2001 — world cricket was witnessing the rise of a nation that, at the rate it was going, could soon knock the best international sides off their perch.
But that would never be the case. All broke loose around 2003-04 when total madness, greed, massive plunder, incompetence — you name it — combined forces to downgrade Zimbabwean cricket to its current lowly status.
As you read this piece, Zimbabwe is today desperate to avoid a series defeat to Afghanistan in the United Arab Emirates.
Back in the days, before the bubble burst, Kwekwe Sports Club would roar over the Afghans.
Now they scare the hell out of us, and going by recent results over Zimbabwe, Afghanistan and West Indies should start as favourites to claim the two qualification spots for next year’s World Cup.
Failing to qualify will be a disaster of enormous proportions for Zimbabwe, who have been to every World Cup since 1983.
It will multiply the great anguish of Zimbabwean cricket fans, and mark a new low for the game in this country.
But while the Zimbabwean cricket supporter has enough pain of his own, spare a thought for Kenya.
With Zimbabwe facing the real danger of not being part of the World Cup for the first time since 1983 — Kenya, semi-finalists in the 2003 World Cup and seen as a rising power of the game at that time — have retrogressed even more spectacularly.
The East Africans have failed to qualify for the qualification tournament in Zimbabwe.
Aasif Karim, a legend of Kenyan cricket who starred in that 2003 World Cup fairytale, remarked in 2014 that the sport in his country was “dead and buried”.
What has happened in Namibia this past few days, where the Kenyans not only failed to qualify for the qualifiers, but were also relegated to the ICC World Cricket League Division Three, means there is no hope of rising from the death pronounced by Karim three years ago.
Like Zimbabwe, what has happened to Kenya is nothing short of tragic.
What caused Zimbabwe’s demise is well-documented, but just how did Kenya — whose famous success story of 2003 sparked talk of Test status — end up in the same league as the likes of Oman and Nepal?
Kenyan journalist James Wokabi, an East African correspondent for Supersport, answered me caustically when I posed the question a few days ago.
“Kenya cricket was a happy accident,” he told me. “What you are seeing is the norm.”
In both cases, in Zimbabwe and Kenya, the self-destruct button was obviously pressed hard, too hard and too low to be pulled up again.
Yet, at the same time, the International Cricket Council (ICC) should also take a huge amount of flak for the state of affairs.
When the global governing body of the sport let an emerging power like Kenya fall from grace the way it has, then you seriously question the desire and will to make cricket a truly global sport.
And by reducing the number of teams in the World Cup to a mere 10 — when other major sporting disciplines like football and rugby are seeing the wisdom and necessity of expanding their World Cups — it is clear cricket has chosen to remain an exclusive, elitist sport with no global interest.
Plummeting levels of competition in countries like Zimbabwe and Kenya — which had made huge strides — will not attract new players and fans.
We cannot speak of growing cricket in new places when existing structures are dying.