Zimbabwe Cricket (ZC) has made a big show of intent to rejuvenate and grow cricket in the country following the launch of the potentially explosive National Premier League (NPL) which kicks off this weekend.
The winner of the new competition is set to walk away with US$10 000, but the rewards could be far-reaching for the country.
Cricket in the country has failed to make any significant strides on the international stage since 2004, when 13 of the senior white players quit the team in a dispute over selection policy.
Performances have been appalling for Zimbabwe, the country falling way behind Bangladesh who only got their Test status in 2000.
Bangladesh already has a thriving national cricket league which has transformed the subcontinent nation into a bogey side for Zimbabwe.
Zimbabwe has not done any better in One Day Internationals (ODIs) sitting 14th on the rankings behind teams such Afghanistan, Ireland, Netherlands and Oman.
Two years ago, Zimbabwe failed to qualify for the 2019 Cricket World Cup hosted by England and Wales with the team losing the crucial qualifier encounter to the United Arab Emirates at Harare Sports Club.
But the new league format, which includes nine clubs from around the country, is certainly a masterstroke set to increase the national team pool selection and uncover a lot of talent.
ZC board chairperson Tavengwa Mukuhlani took responsibility for the shortcomings of his administration which has been in charge since 2015.
“The primary existence for ZC is to make sure that we play cricket and produce cricketers. And since 2015, I think we have fallen short of delivering on that reason to existence,” Mukuhlani said at the launch of the NPL on Wednesday.
“Cricket is not only about the national team. It’s the desire for every athlete to represent a country, the highest accolade you can get as an athlete, but there is a process to that.
It is that process that underpins the reason of existence for ZC. It is that process that speaks to the future of ZC. And the future of ZC is premised on being able to have a decent pipeline that produces proper cricketers.
“And that is the reason why we have said after dealing with the elephant in the room — the financial issues of ZC — we needed to go back to the basics, to the grassroots, to do the basic things. And the starting point is for us to have club cricket back.”
The current ZC administration has had to deal with a legacy debt that topped US$18 million, an obligation which has since been fully cleared in the last couple of months.
What may have been the catalyst for the accumulation of such a huge debt was the franchise cricket system, a first- class cricket structure which came into existence about 11 years ago.
The extravagant franchise cricket system began in 2009 with a T20 competition that had guest players, including West Indies legends Brian Lara and Chris Gayle.
It was at that time that the custodians of the game began to overlook club cricket which had produced a lot of success for cricket in the country in days gone by.
“When Dave Houghton and others were playing back in the day, and they qualified for every world cup, they actually didn’t have a first-class structure, but they had clubs; they didn’t have scholarship programmes, but club cricket,” Mukuhlani said.
“So there is a history in this country that says a strong club cricket system can bring success, a strong club system fixes the problem at first-class; when first-class is fixed, there is no problem in the national team.
“But the problem we have had is that we have been focused on who is in the national team, but not where the player in the national team is coming from. We want to see a decent strong club system to feed the first-class. And when we have a strong club system, we are going to allow community participation. And today the launch of the NPL marks the beginning of that process.”
Former Zimbabwe captain Hamilton Masakadza, who is now the ZC director for cricket, has been in the thick of things making sure that the project, which begins on Sunday, is a success.
The highly anticipated 45-over tournament will see Zimbabwe’s top nine cricket clubs tussling it out in a scintillating 36-match tournament set to conclude in November.
The teams participating in the inaugural NPL competition are Amakhosi, Queens, Takashinga, Rainbow, Gladiators, Harare Kings, Great Zimbabwe, MidWest and Easterns.
The tournament is expected to be competitive, with several Zimbabwe international players having been signed up by the clubs for the inaugural season.
According to Mukuhlani, it is compulsory for all national team players to participate in the NPL for clubs of their choice.
The NPL will get underway on Sunday, with MidWest hosting Takashinga at Kwekwe Sports Club in Kwekwe, while Great Zimbabwe and Harare Kings will face off at Mutare Sports Club in Mutare.
The first round will also see Queens and Amakhosi clashing in a Bulawayo derby set for Queens Sports Club, with Rainbow taking on Gladiators at Harare Sports Club in the capital city.