It wasn't always like this. In 1999, Zimbabwe took with them to the World Cup a squad that consisted of Brandes, Campbell, Carlisle, Flower, Flower, Goodwin, Huckle, Johnson, Mbangwa, Olonga, Strang, Streak, Viljoen, Whittall and Whittall. This side was good enough to reach fifth place in the World Cup purely on cricketing merit, narrowly missing out on the semi-finals as the top five of the Super Six were split by just one point.
Four years later, with a slightly rejuvenated squad, the Zimbabweans progressed once again to the Super Six. This time, though, it was thanks in no small part to England conceding their match in Zimbabwe because of security concerns. Had this match taken place, anything other than a Zimbabwean victory would have led to England qualifying in their place. Pakistan could similarly have progressed past the co-hosts had their group stage match not finished without a result. Lucky or otherwise, a sixth place in the World Cup wasn't a bad result, even if they were brought down to earth by getting a mauling at the hands of the Kenyans. This was, of course, the World Cup known for Henry Olonga and Andy Flower's death of democracy protest.
Since then, Zimbabwe has not beaten a Full Member at a World Cup. Since 2003, players have been turning their backs on Zimbabwe in droves. There have been more players than I could list who have severed ties, and the current Zimbabwean cricket situation is an absolute mess as a result. Even one of the most loyal servants to the game in Zimbabwe, Tatenda Taibu, has recently given up cricket to work for God.
Sean Ervine, who still plies his trade for Hampshire with success, could breeze back into today's side.
Since their comeback from Test cricketing exile, Zimbabwe have received some serious thumpings. Amongst them, though, have been two victories over Bangladesh which have papered over the cracks somewhat. In both of those victories, Brendan Taylor's runs completely overhauled the opposition. In the first win, he hit 71 and 105 not out while in the second, scores of 171 and 102 not out came from his bat. In the one other impressive performance since Zimbabwe's return, the 34-run loss to New Zealand, Taylor scored 50 and 117. The rest of his scores, across the five heavy defeats at the hands of Pakistan, New Zealand, West Indies and Bangladesh, read: 10, 5, 9, 2, 26, 6, 33, 7, 36, 10. The message is clear: if Brendan Taylor performs, Zimbabwe compete. If he does not, they sink without trace.
To be so dependent on one player is not a recipe for success, although thus far it has managed to keep Zimbabwe's Test rating higher than Bangladesh's. What needs to be happening is for more talented players to come through and stick with Zimbabwe, and the fact that they aren't is a damning reflection on the system as a whole.
There is a distinct lack of Zimbabwean talent around, and especially a lack of it that is sticking around.
The salaries on offer are forcing players away. Craig Ervine has moved to Ireland, following Nathan Waller, as neither was being paid enough to make playing cricket worth their while. Both have now stated their intentions to play for Ireland, and Waller in particular could end up doing so sooner rather than later if he's up to it. Unfortunately, with no sponsors and no income, there is little that Zimbabwe Cricket can do to change this major problem. For a time, the Stanbic Bank T20 looked extremely promising, with players like Chris Gayle and Dirk Nannes arriving to play for the franchises. That mini-boom lasted just one season, and the franchises are now back to picking up county pros who are looking for some practice before they try to break into their first XIs back home.
Ray Price, in a recent interview, has said that the standard of Zimbabwean domestic cricket is simply not good enough to produce the next batch of international stars. The five franchises do their best, but with limited resources and a limited player pool, the standard of the Logan Cup is regularly and heavily criticised. It is some time since the days when, aged only fifteen, Charles Coventry walked out to face Strang, Blignaut and Brandes, and said that it was as hard a challenge as he has ever faced.
Ray Price is unimpressed with the standard of the Logan Cup.
There was yet another reshuffle in 2009, as five franchises were formed. The new structure was praised for the improved quality of the cricket, although Cricinfo were less than impressed by how difficult it was to obtain scores for the competition. Still, with question marks continuing to linger over this latest domestic structure, the club scene having slipped drastically from its hay-day in the dawn of Zimbabwe's Full Membership. Now there are too few players spread around too many clubs, and the standard is poorer as a result. But there isn't really a lot that can be done about it either.
If the ICC were to implement the WTC structure that I advocate, then Zimbabwe would be able to get regular cricket against good opposition. In an ideal world, the ICC would also cover any losses made on WTC tours, because Zimbabwean series have a habit of doing just that - leaking money like Northern Rock. If the right financial guarantees were in place, and Zimbabwe had regular Test matches to prepare for, as well as winnable three-match series against Ireland and Bangladesh, then there would be something for Zimbabwe Cricket to rebuild around. Similarly, if there were thirty Test matches to be played, all televised, then sponsors might start to make themselves known.
A fairer structure to Test cricket would be one thing that could help Zimbabwe, but would the world agree to it?
Another must is for Zimbabwe Cricket to go out and cultivate relationships with first-class teams abroad, as well as premier club sides and minor counties, to try to get as many of their players playing good cricket as possible. A huge amount of Zimbabwean cricketers already ply their trades overseas, so why not embrace the fact rather than railing against it? If these Zimbabweans can play good cricket overseas, probably at a standard better than what they are used to at home, then it can only assist them as players. If they were then rounded back up for a couple of months for the Logan Cup, so that they could all be pitted against each other in one place, which would help the selectors to judge them against one another. Vusi Sibanda, for instance, turned down a national contract to go and play Grade cricket, and came back a better player for it. Why not embrace such things? Especially if Zimbabwe Cricket took a 10% cut, which could generate some income if these players are paid professionals.
I would like to finish by looking at a selection of the players that Zimbabwe have lost.
- Friday Kasteni - Had a short run as a teenager in the ODI side, now playing occasionally for the Northern Territories.
- Craig Ervine - A highly talented top order batsman, played Tests but departed to play in Ireland.
- Tatenda Taibu - The best 'keeper-batsman after Andy Flower, left, disillusioned, to devote himself to the church.
- Gary Ballance - The most promising batsman in over a decade, now on the fringes of England's set-up.
- Sean Ervine - Could have been a Zimbabwean great, left to play county cricket and set himself up after cricket.
- Colin de Grandhomme - Highly talented all-rounder, capped at U-19 level, has since played for the Kiwis.
- Malcolm Lake - Hugely talented all-rounder, has graduated from the U-19 team and left to make a living.
- Travis Friend - Now 32 years old, Friend had serious pace, but moved to the UK in his mid-20s.
- Ryan Higgins - Picked straight from school as a spinner and made a success of it. Still only 25.
- Anthony Ireland - Made big waves in his early 20s before moving away to play county cricket.
- Nathan Waller - Richly talented, as the Northern Knights in Ireland will attest.
So many of these players could have strengthened today's side, which instead looks very threadbare. Of course, to expect any kind of quick fix is wishful thinking. To expect Zimbabwe's cricketing system to do anything other than implode looks equally wishful at times. We just have to hope, for the sake of cricket, that things look up soon.