Zimbabwean sport and the numbers game…who has more and why?
TAKASHINGA’S entry into the first league in this country around the turn of the millennium ushered in a new wave of healthy rivalry on Zimbabwe’s domestic cricket circuit.
Then, strength was spread across all top teams, from Takashinga to the dominantly white clubs those days: Harare Sports Club, Old Hararians, Old Georgians, Alexandra, Queens Sports Club, Bulawayo Athletic Club.
Deep in that new surge of black cricket revolution, Takashinga, for some reason, chose Old Hararians as the club they most loathed to lose to, and cherished the most to beat.
It most likely stemmed from that Old Hararians had traditionally been the old students’ club of Prince Edward High, where some of the Takashinga stalwarts were schooled on cricket scholarships, so the seeds of rivalry had been sown as schoolboys back in the day.
Likewise, Old Hararians saw great foes in Takashinga, and fierce contests ensued whenever these two clashed.
Hundreds if not thousands of spectators who firmly stood for a quicker pace of racial integration came to the grounds, both in Highfield and Milton Park, to witness some of Zimbabwe’s best black cricketers from the townships take on the northern suburbs’ finest sportsmen in their pomp, a strong urge to prove a point uppermost in their minds.
This made for some gripping battles on and off the field. Tempers flared, and I daresay complete with some pushing and shoving, accompanied by pretty nasty verbal warfare.
Ever since cricket has been played in this country, the connection of sports clubs to communities, schools, religion and social classes even, was the basis of rivalries and though it was only centred in the minority racial groups, these factors still drew a significant number of spectators at the peak of the minority populations in Zimbabwe.
That attachment can be viewed as crucial to this day, and answers the intriguing question that arose again this week: which is the biggest crowd puller in Zimbabwean sport, and why is it that in cricket the stadiums fill up only when the national side plays at home yet there is little to no interest at all in domestic league games?
I have attempted to answer that above, but another simplified explanation is that cricket has the best-performing national team at the moment, in the absence of football during Fifa’s international suspension of the country. So any patriotic sports fan is naturally drawn to Harare Sports Club, or Queens, for the vibe and the atmosphere, even without understanding the deeper intricacies of cricket as it is played.
It is fair to say that quite a big number of those in the stands at HSC or Queens do not have full appreciation of the entertainment value of cricket without emotional or historical attachment to any of the teams, or players.
True, there is lots of domestic cricket being played in Zimbabwe at the moment, but not so much involving clubs from the traditional system, to the extent that the Asian giants Sunrise and Universals are virtually no longer existent sport-wise.
Zimbabwe’s Stanbic Bank Twenty20 Series of seasons gone by was an instant hit, because it was aggressively marketed and attracted some of world cricket’s biggest names. There has not been anything of that sort since.
Thankfully, there are still some purists of the game left in the country, guys who will stumble upon a good game of club cricket – at Alex, Kwekwe Sports Club or Bulawayo Athletic Club – and have the urge to hang on the entire day for some unexpected entertainment.
But fans need to see something they can relate to.
That is why Zimbabwean football – down and out at the moment under Fifa’s brutal sanction – is still able to retain decent crowds at domestic matches.
Fear was rife that fans would disappear from stadiums in protest over the international wilderness. The Premier Soccer League (PSL) has however recently gotten off to a pleasing start in terms of attendances. It is not great, but it is not miserable.
This is simply because in spite of everything, there is still their Dynamos, their Highlanders, their CAPS United, their FC Platinum, their Simba Bhora – all these institutions they know well, love, and relate to.
Supporters of these team do not only get excited when it is the national team playing. This makes football, with minimum level of competition from others, the number one followed sport in the country.
I keenly followed a debate last weekend after the majestic crowd that thronged Harare Sports Club to watch Zimbabwe defeat the Netherlands on Saturday to seal the three-match ODI series.
Whilst the cricket fans felt heartened by the attendance, many were honest enough to give football the honours as the premier code, and placed rugby in second place. I totally agreed. Just take a look at the season-opening Under-20 rugby league that ended a fortnight ago – the delightful crowds, including the who’s who of society, turning up to watch the enterprising brand of rugby displayed by the next generation of Zimbabwe players.
The NedBank Challenge last week did not disappoint either. Well it is hardly surprising, because ZimRugby is a loyal, diverse and close-knit community – involving old players and administrators, club members, knowledgeable supporters, family members and friends who know and love their sport to bits.
The historic attachment exists to this day and, trust me, a great many folks in this game still take it very seriously.
Because it is shorter, some sports followers argue a case for rugby’s entertainment value compared to cricket.
But with the advent of T20 – and now T10 making inroads and the 100-ball version also in the mix – cricket cannot be said to be less of a spectator sport in this argument.
Cricket in Zimbabwe just needs to take a leaf, perhaps, from its closest cousin rugby in terms of getting bums on domestic grounds seats, for the faithful to understand the game better and psych up for when the Chevrons are in town and giving them joy as has been happening of late.