IF you want to tell the story of Zimbabwean cricket in the last decade, no player embodies it better than the recently retired Elton Chigumbura, whose international career spanned 16 years.
It is a story of natural talent, unfulfilled potential, missed opportunities, maladministration, hoping against hope and despair.
When Chigumbura burst on to the scene at the back of the rebel saga, there was something refreshing about his cricket, the exuberance and folly of youth.
Those at 28 Maiden Drive, the headquarters of Zimbabwe Cricket (ZC), at the time saw the likes of Chigumbura as a reflection of the success story of the development project that saw the game being taken to townships across the country.
Chigumbura played with reckless abandon on his Test debut against Sri Lanka and tried to take on the great Muttiah Muralitharan at the stroke of lunch, perishing in the process. He just could not curb his attacking instincts.
The same can be said about the ZC leadership in the decade just ending. The embattled administrators sometimes launched all-out attacks at the wrong time on perceived enemies, including journalists, for exposing the rot at the second most followed sport in the country.
When Australia toured this country in May 2004, an 18-year-old Chigumbura scored 77 from 90 balls, against an attack that had the likes of Jason Gillespie, Shane Watson, Glen McGrath and Brad Hogg.
A decade later in 2014, Chigumbura finished on 52 not out and shared an unbroken stand of 55 with Prosper Utseya as Zimbabwe chased down a target of 210 at Harare Sports Club to beat Australia by three wickets, defeating the mighty Aussies for the first time in 31 years.
This was another false dawn for Zimbabwe as it happened a year before the 2015 World Cup.
It is the same for Chigumbura each time he came to the crease. The fans expected something special, but his career average of 25 in ODI tells you of his inconsistency.
His strike rate of 80% tells another story of how he could hit a boundary at the drop of a hat.
In cricket they say statistics do not lie. Whilst that is true, statistics tell half the story. Someone will score a hundred and it will be written against their name in the statistics column, but they will not write that the player was dropped five times on his way to his century.
A player may be dismissed for a duck and the statistics will not tell you that the batsman got the most unplayable delivery first up.
Chigumbura represents a generation that saved Zimbabwe from total collapse when the relationship between a group of 15 senior white players and the board became unmendable.
Statistically shows that Chigumbura retired as the joint second most capped Zimbabwe ODI player with 213 caps, alongside the legendary Andy Flower.
The former Zimbabwe captain played almost the same number of ODIs as South Africa’s AB De Villiers, but the difference is that the prolific Proteas batsman had a number of performing senior players around him, which helped him flourish.
Chigumbura played mostly alongside his ex-Zimbabwe Under-19 team-mates, he did not have the luxury of being surrounded by men of the calibre of Jacques Kallis, Shaun Pollock or Graeme Smith.
It is the same for ZC. They shut the door on some competent and professional administrators – black or otherwise – who could have transformed Zimbabwe’s fortunes in the just-ended decade.
In his pomp, Chigumbura was a genuine all-rounder who could bowl quick, before he sustained a stress fracture.When he started to bowl less, Chigumbura was elevated up the order so that he could take more responsibility as both captain and batter.
This resulted in him scoring his maiden ODI century, against Pakistan in 2015, and followed up with another at home immediately after against India.
One cannot deny the fact that Chigumbura had been a great servant of Zimbabwe and could have had a stellar career with better numbers had he not been fast-tracked into the national team.
In a cricketing world that has only two African countries playing the pinnacle format of the game, a competitive Zimbabwe is key for the growth of the game.
When Zimbabwe successfully hosted the 2019 World Cup qualification competition in 2018, record crowds thronged Harare Sports Club and Queens Sports Club to watch the host team.
The International Cricket Council was pleasantly surprised and had to come up with a plan to save cricket in the country, starting by assisting ZC resolve its debt crisis. It has been taking shape.
Soon, the issue of money will not be an excuse anymore, and one would expect more revenue to be channelled towards cricket development.
The next decade starts on another positive after Zimbabwe was given another chance to host the 2023 World Cup Qualifiers.
The emergence of exciting talent like Wesley Madhevere has not only gotten Zimbabwe cricket fans excited, but the world too. The question is how to develop such players to world-class status, so that they will not become another Chigumbura, who never became the player his talents deserved.
Once upon a time we had Chamu Chibhabha oozing with the same natural abilities. He had a great record after his first five ODIs, bettered only by none other than Andy Flower.
One hopes that Madhevere goes all the way up until the end of his career, building on the captivating start he has had.
Zimbabwe has never had a shortage of talent, but the environment has failed successive generations of gifted players.
People have often argued whether the brothers Tom and Sam Curran, who represent England, could have become the good players they are if they had continued playing their cricket in Zimbabwe. The same for Colin de Grandhomme, who now plays for New Zealand.
Kuda Samunderu is another one who was tipped to become a world-beater, but packed his bags and left the country for South Africa because of nepotism in selection.
For a small country like ours, with a very small cricket population, we cannot afford to let any cricket talent slip through the hands.
As we look forward to a new decade, one cannot help to notice or question the strategic output by those entrusted to administer the game here.
In the last couple of years, we have seen some senior players retiring from the game at a time when young players who are coming through are desperate for guidance.
Having Hamilton Masakadza as the director of cricket looks like a noble idea, but he should have at least been persuaded to continue playing first-class cricket so that he can help groom the next generation of Zimbabwean batsmen.
Forster Mtizwa, another batsman who retired after being snubbed by the national selectors, quit domestic cricket and took up umpiring.
The same for Chigumbura, he is not featuring in the first-class set-up and may probably play white ball cricket for the Mashonaland Eagles.
ZC should incentivise a select group of senior batsmen and bowlers to continue plying their trade at the domestic level but will not be considered for international selection, so that they can help bring the youngsters through and prepare them for international cricket.
If you want to know why our neighbours South Africa were so successful in both Tests and ODIs since readmission in 1992, they had a very competitive domestic structure in which provinces contracted retired West Indies greats.
In Durban, the Dolphins who used to be called Natal, had Malcom Marshall within their ranks. The great fast bowler helped to groom players like Shaun Pollock and Lance Klusener as well as Neil Johnson, who featured for Zimbabwe in international cricket.
Other South African provinces captured the signatures of winners like Desmond Haynes, Gordon Greenidge and Vasbert Drakes. Zimbabwe can even go the expensive route of courting some English players who want to enjoy our sunshine and prepare for the county season by playing a few Logan Cup matches, like what Zimbabwean-born Nick Welch has recently been doing.
The way our season is structured at the moment gives room for senior county players to come and add quality in our Logan Cup, Zimbabwe’s first-class competition.
If ZC does not up its game, the 2020s may result in Zimbabwe losing to Afghanistan and Ireland in Tests, which does not augur well for the growth and sustenance of our game.
Another strategy that has helped the West Indies to remain relevant was to adjust their game by embracing T20 cricket, and in the process they have won two T20 World Cups.
T20 has narrowed the gap between bigger cricket nations and the smaller one. Any team can beat anyone on their day.
Zimbabwe has missed the trick in T20 cricket by not deliberately going out to search for young talent that suits this version.
As the new decade dawns, it is not too late for ZC to come up with a 10-year plan on how to create a generation of T20 players who will represent their country with distinction and put Zimbabwe back on the cricket map.
Afghanistan has also shown all the smaller cricketing nations how to become a formidable white-ball team by scoring many important victories in T20 cricket.
Their cricket is being built around wrist spinner like Rashid Khan, mystery spinners Mujeeb Rahman and Mohammed Nabi as well as hard-hitting batsman like Hazratullah Zazai.
With proper planning in the coming decade, there is no way Zimbabwe can fail to become a T20 nation of note which starts by bringing back a domestic competition like the Stanbic T20 competition which was graced by prominent foreign players few years back.
As we said goodbye to Elton Chigumbura, a new clean hitter of the ball must emerge in the coming decade, raised along the correct cricket lines to fulfil the potential that Zimbabwe has
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