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A team lacking heart and the right quality

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Enock Muchinjo

BEFOFE this job, I had been raised on a very strong diet of club cricket in Zimbabwe, what I call the “decade of prosperity” between 1994 and 2004.

It is no wonder that during this same period, our national team posed a perennial threat to some of the best teams in the world. The lowest ranked, sides, like Bangladesh – never mind the rest – were dispatched with ease. 

I can testify to that, back in the days, there were a lot of very good players in club circles, many of whom never even got the opportunity to play first-class cricket, the highest level of domestic competition in this country.

These days, first-class cricket, which forms the basis for national team selection, is a bad joke so horrible that it is actually funny.

When I look back, I remember club cricketers so good, with the advantage of hindsight now, who were miles better than most of the guys calling themselves the Chevrons today. 

Post-2004, I cannot think of any Zimbabwe national team player with the all-round gifts of one Shepherd Makunura, yet this man, in his prime, was never anywhere near an international field.

It was simply an era of very good Zimbabwean cricketers, simply so, and people like Shephie will look back and think how time did them an injustice by placing them in the wrong era.

 If you want, for those inclined to see things that way, you could call it racism, that sinister and sickening vice that continues, fortunately, to be sneered at by the rest of the progressive world. 

But then, how do you also explain that one Campbell Macmillan, with the right shade of pale skin, and at one time the quickest bowler in the country, never got to play international cricket for Zimbabwe?

It is simply because the selection panel those days, spoilt for choice, had told Macmillan that pace alone was not good enough to earn him his international stripes – ahead of such men as Heath Streak, Henry Olonga (pictured), Andy Blignaut, or even Brighton Watambwa. Lucky buggers, those selectors. 

As for Macmillan, had he belonged to this era, he would walk into the current Zimbabwe side without much of a hassle, and lead the bowling attack.

We have said it time and again, and as has the recent Test and Twenty20 games against Afghanistan have shown, the structures of Zimbabwean cricket are not conducive to produce half-decent international players.

The players themselves have lost the fire and the fundamentals we associated with previous generations of the Zimbabwe team. They have accepted their fate, “we can only lose, we aren’t good enough.”

As I watched Afghanistan come back to win the second Test match in Abu Dhabi, I refused to blame a youngster like Wesley Madhevere or Ryan Burl.

I put the blame squarely on the more senior players who scored 40s, 50s and 60s but did not convert, as expected of players like them, and as we always see other international players of the same experience do for their countries. 

But I fear for somebody like young Madhevere because despite his obvious talent, the kind of team culture he has walked into has long lowered standards and normalised mediocrity. It is pretty easy for a newcomer to slowly but surely sail with the wind.

I have seen it before, trust me. New players from other nations have emerged and overtaken ours at a worryingly rapid rate. I was with the Zimbabwe team at Pretoria’s High-Performance Centre in 2005 for a whistle-stop tour in preparation to host Bangladesh, and I remember a young Dean Elgar gazing in apparent awe at the international players in our squad, nearly asking for an autograph, you felt.

Most of the Zimbabwe players on that trip have since retired, with little to show from over a decade of international cricket.

Elgar, South Africa’s new Test captain, is today one of the best players in the world with 13 centuries in 67 Tests at an average of 39.81 after only debuting for the Proteas as late as 2012, a good seven years after I caught him looking at our players with child-like adoration. 

Or Rashid Khan, who in 2015 was making his international debut in Zimbabwe and, six years later, is now considered the world’s premier leg-spin bowler.

From a Zimbabwean player’s perspective, the process of self-reflection, if the will is there, should start with a critical question – so what is wrong with us?

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