SIX months ago, the final nail in the coffin of Zimbabwean cricket appeared to come with the country’s suspension as a member of the International Cricket Council (ICC) for political interference in the running of the sport.
For the embattled chairperson of Zimbabwe Cricket (ZC), Tavengwa Mukuhlani, a media interview talking of brighter days ahead, overlooking an exciting Test match in which the African nation is firmly on top against a top-six team — a rarity even in the best of times — would have been a wild dream.
Roll the clock forward six months, and this was exactly the scenario at lunch time on Wednesday on day three of the second Test match against touring Sri Lanka.
Zimbabwe’s bowling attack, led by the fired-up off-spinner Sikandar Raza, was sensing blood, surging towards a healthy first innings lead and plenty of time left in the Test to notch up a shock series-equaling win.
In Harare Sports Club’s VIP section, now renamed Peter Chingoka Enclosure, this interview with the reinstated ZC boss is regularly interrupted by loud cries of encouragement from invited guests and other officials.
Although Mukuhlani was not eager to speak about his bitter feud with the Sports and Recreation Commission (SRC) last year, which he says is now water under the bridge, he stressed that the sacking of his board by the SRC, which courted the ICC’s sanction, stalled progress during Zimbabwe’s international hiatus.
“If you look at the 18 months up to that, there were signs of progress at ZC from many fronts, but primarily from financial stability,” Mukuhlani told IndependentSport.
“Salaries were being paid on time, we were meeting all financial obligations. ZC was stable up until June 2019. The team was beginning to gel into a good unit.
Even the ladies (team). Look at the results of that time. There was so much single-mindedness and the direction was clear. We had a successful domestic season.
What we are seeing in this (Sri Lanka) series is what we would have expected if we had not experienced what happened. 2019 would have been a very good period for cricket in Zimbabwe. We would have qualified for the (2019 T20 World Cup). The ladies, too, would have qualified. We had somehow managed to put together a solid foundation to build on. However, after the problems, we all realised we needed each other than we don’t.
Everyone now knows what we are capable of doing. We just need to put our minds into it.”How Zimbabwe has performed so competitively in this series ending today has come as such a huge relief for the team’s fans.
It is Zimbabwe’s first taste of the longer-version of the game in over a year, as well as the country’s first international commitment since readmission.
The biggest cause of concern was not really the ability on the park, though, but a toxic dressing room that could have potentially taken the team away from collective goals.
The events leading to the ICC ban last year had split the Zimbabwe squad into two, with players taking either side of the warring parties as the battle for control of ZC reached fever pitch.
“I think, for starters, it was an unfortunate thing to end up having a divided changing room,” Mukuhlani said. “We don’t want that to happen again. Soon after the ban, the process of healing started. It became the primary objective, that the team came together. That’s why it took ZC a long time to appoint the captains (Sean Williams for Tests and Chamu Chibhabha for limited-overs), to allow people to get over the past. I’m happy the boys took heed and united.
I think it’s a process, and we will continue to do that. It has not been easy. But the players managed to do it, and even as you can see, the body language tells us.”
The reasons behind the ICC’s firm and unshakable decision to back the suspended ZC board in its hour of need became the subject of much speculation, with the political dynamics that shape the governance of the world game widely rumoured to have come into play.
Mukuhlani, who also sits on the ICC board, however dispelled the suspicion of any ulterior motives behind the support his administration received from the world governing body.
“The support that ZC got from the ICC board is premised on deliverables agreed with ICC,” Mukuhlani said. “We were well ahead of the strategic goals of 2018. When the issue (of the ZC board removal) came out, it took ICC aback. That defined that support.”
Zimbabwe, which is currently receiving a total US$94 million funding from the ICC across an eight-year cycle that was unrolled in 2017, hosted the then ICC chief executive Dave Richardson in 2018 during a work visit on which the Dubai-based organisation was understood to have been satisfied with ZC’s financial roadmap, which appears to back Mukuhlani’s claims.
Beyond the boardroom, Mukuhlani said the ICC’s show of support for Zimbabwe under his stewardship is further testified by the amount of time the Zimbabwe tam will spend in the middle this year.
“Sri Lanka is here. Bangladesh is giving us games. India is giving us games. Australia is giving us games. So that goodwill is there,” Mukuhlani said.
“I would love to see more from South Africa, which is not the case at the moment. Look at our FTP (Future Tours Programme), it’s packed.”
Zimbabwe will be off to Bangladesh at the end of February for a single Test, three ODIs and two T20s. Next up will be Ireland’s maiden Test tour of Zimbabwe, in April. Zimbabwe will then tour Australia for an ODI series around June before India, Afghanistan, Netherlands and Pakistan all tour here before the end of the year for fixtures yet to be structured.
From here on, Mukuhlani is hopeful that the game in Zimbabwe will steer clear of off-field matters, saying relations with the SRC had vastly improved over the past few months.
“You know, I want to put this into context, we never had bad relations with the SRC,” Mukuhlani said. “A lot of what we achieved, restructuring of the debt with Zamco (Zimbabwe Asset Management Corporation), hosting of the World Cup Qualifies (in 2018), we did working together with the SRC, the ministry (of Sport), and the ICC. The events leading to the point of the (ZC) suspension can best be described in my view as a classic example of some stakeholders in cricket who had agendas that had been developing on the sidelines of cricket. But that doesn’t define our relationship with the SRC. We remain compliant to the SRC and the ministry whenever necessary. Remember, we have to look at the SRC as an institution, not as persons. Unfortunately there was that dispute, after which we all found each other. The SRC got to understand us much better. We have taken steps to make sure that we update each other whenever necessary.”
It has not been all smooth sailing, though, for ZC post-readmission and those that came through to the matches would have certainly not failed to observe signs of deprivation here and there in terms of how the series has been hosted.
Before Sri Lanka arrived, ZC came under familiar criticism after putting the domestic season on hold. All this, Mukuhlani said, was because normal funding has not resumed since the ban was lifted.
“The eight-year cycle was heavily impacted by the ban,” Mukuhlani said. “We are 99% reliant on distributions from ICC. Even as we play this Test, there is no funding. (But) we have put a proper management structure that is acceptable to ICC, that doesn’t choke us. We are under controlled funding. We expect resumption of funding soon. But that hasn’t stopped us from our obligations. We’ve gone out to look for sponsors. We’ve negotiated broadcasting to livestream (the Sri Lanka series) as opposed to TV. We’ve got kit (sponsorship) and (used) a bit of savings here and there.”
Further explaining the disruption of domestic games, Mukuhani said: “We are not on full funding, so the domestic season started, and the (Sri Lanka) series came. It only made sense to slightly adjourn for the series, which is an exciting series. But as we speak, we have a game taking place in Bulawayo right now. Normal schedule will resume after this series.”
Mukuhlani said ZC has pressed upon the players to commit themselves fully to the domestic league.“One thing that we need to do is to make sure that selection is based on performance from the domestic league,” he said. “It will force international players to play in the league. If we don’t take it seriously, it means nothing for fans to come and watch. It has to make economic sense. The more we create competition, the more we make it exciting.”
Moving forward in a more positive direction will however face a stern test after it emerged this week that ZC could soon be forced to cut salaries of players and other employees of the association as a temporary measure due to adjustments in the distribution of funds under the eight-year cycle.
Mukuhlani confirmed the development, saying actual figures of the new remuneration packages will be decided shortly after a board meeting.
“Briefing has been going on across the organisation,” he said. “Obviously it’s a bit of a touchy subject. But I will assume that everyone will accept it. We will rather make sacrifices today, and survive tomorrow. It’s bring and take, a bargaining process. We will however make sure that everyone affected will have a big soft-landing.”
ZC’s head office is still being headed by Givemore Makoni, who has been the acting managing director after former ICC finance chief Faisal Hasnain left the post in unclear circumstances at the end of 2017.
“We were almost closer to make the final decision regarding the MD position last year but issues came,” Mukuhlani said. “We had to deal with bigger issues. We felt it was necessary to focus on issues that are key. In the fullness of time, the board will make the call. But credit to the acting MD, he has done a decent job. But like I say, the board will make the decision.”