IN FOCUS – Three cheers for Team Zimbabwe

  Zimbabwe’s historic 24 run win in the second Test over Pakistan at Harare was not only a great day for Zimbabwean cricket, but also for Test cricket. Besides underlining Zimbabwe’s steady improvement at the top level, the match also provided a gripping duel between bat and ball that only Test cricket is able to offer.

  The fact that the Test was played at the same ground which hosted the first Test just three days earlier, and on a pitch that has seen considerable wear and tear throughout the season, made it all more the commendable and credit goes to the Harare Sports Club ground-staff to prepare a wicket which had something for everyone in spite of the short notice.

  The very possibility of this two-Test series to start as per schedule was in doubt after wage issues dogged its build-up yet again. Even before the one-day series, the Zimbabwean players had gone on strike and it seemed as if cricket in the African nation was on the verge of yet another crisis. But in the very first ODI, Zimbabwe put all that behind them to score a rare win, although they lost the series.

  However, the improvement was there for all to see, and it was a sign that better things were to follow. And as it turned out, amid off-field woes and struggles, Zimbabwe gave a wonderful example of true team spirit to come from behind and square the Test series. Even in the first Test, Zimbabwe were early favorites, but Pakistan’s under-rated veteran Younis Khan denied them a chance, and a familiar second-innings collapse meant that the hosts went down by 221 runs despite controlling most of the sessions.

  In the current scenario of unpaid wages, financial crises and lack of general support, a lesser team would have buckled and surrendered after such a frustrating loss. But this Zimbabwean team genuinely believed that they could be a force to reckon with, and more importantly, playing for the nation came above everything else for them. Captain Brendan Taylor had said that he had turned down county offers and refused to join the walk-out of 2004, just because he wanted to play for Zimbabwe. His inspiring captaincy has been one of the key factors in building this talented team.

timthumb   Zimbabwe celebrate their memorable and well-deserved Test win by 24 runs against Pakistan at Harare, which helped them to draw the series (source – alrasub.com)

  It was sad to learn that Zimbabwe were blanked 5-0 by India early in the season, despite training like never before for that series. However, that loss was not because of a dearth of skills and ability, but because of a mental block which may have stemmed from a general lack of confidence due to the morale-dampening situation surrounding them. Following that series, Zimbabwe’s key fast bowler Kyle Jarvis announced his retirement and shifted base to the more secure confines of the county circuit, thus weakening the team further.

  In the meantime, it was announced that Sri Lanka’s visit to Zimbabwe, scheduled for October, was cancelled due to financial constraints. This meant that the series against Pakistan was Zimbabwe’s final chance of the season to justify the amount of hard work they had put in over the last few months. And right from the limited-overs series, their determination was on display. The same batsmen who were clueless against Amit Mishra were now appearing confident while facing the guile of Saeed Ajmal, regarded by many as the best spinner in business today.

  In the second Test, the senior duo of Taylor and Hamilton Masakadza (who had admirably captained the side in the first Test in Taylor’s absence) came good in the first innings and this rubbed on to their team-mates. But the batsmen still have to become more consistent – it is not often that collapses of 6/76 and 9/82 win you Test matches. Having said that, Tino Mawoyo, Sikandar Raza and Malcolm Waller did churn out valuable knocks at various stages. The biggest positive from this series has been Zimbabwe’s pace bowling department. They showed that Jarvis would not be missed at all, repeatedly rattling Pakistan’s top-order and lower-order with the new ball.

1091916-17352429-640-360  Young paceman Tendai Chatara celebrates a wicket with Richmond Mutumbami. With 5/61, he was Zimbabwe’s hero in the second innings (source – yahoo.com)

  Save for the old warhorses Younis and captain MIsbah ul-Haq, and to an extent, Khurram Manzoor, none of the Pakistani batsmen were able to cope with the accuracy and swing of Tinashe Panyangara, Tendai Chatara, Shingi Masakadza and Brian Vitori. They bowled outstandingly as a unit, ably supported by the spin of Prosper Utseya, even in not-so-helpful conditions and ultimately reaped the benefits of pure hard work and dedication. Panyangara has had a promising comeback, while Vitori and Chatara were rewarded with five-wicket hauls in the historic win. While Vitori – playing his first Test in 18 months – mopped off the visitors’ middle and lower order in the first innings, Chatara – playing only his fourth Test – ultimately bowled Zimbabwe to victory on the final day. 

  As for Pakistan, they do have their batting problems for quite some time now. With the retirements of Younis and Misbah in the near future, they might have a lot to worry about. However, it was more a case of Zimbabwe’s efficiency than Pakistan’s weaknesses that the hosts managed to win the second Test and square the series. All teams go through transition phases, and if given the long rope, the likes of Azhar Ali, Asad Shafiq and Manzoor might well be the future mainstays of the Pakistani top-order. Ajmal was expectedly their best bowler, and his rich haul of 11/118 in the first Test went a long way in subduing the hosts.

  For the record, this was Zimbabwe’s eleventh Test win, and only the fifth over a team except Bangladesh. Also, the 24 run margin was Zimbabwe’s narrowest Test win, and at the same time, Pakistan’s narrowest Test defeat. The last time Zimbabwe beat a top team was in 2001, when they defeated India by 4 wickets, also at Harare. Indeed, the Harare Sports Club has been Zimbabwe’s favourite venue – eight of their eleven Test wins have come here. 

  So what next for Zimbabwe? With the series with Sri Lanka scrapped, their next Test assignment will be at home against South Africa in July 2014. Before that, they possibly only have the ICC World Twenty20 as far as international cricket is concerned. This underlines the continued lack of opportunities for teams such as Zimbabwe and Ireland, while the big boys play among themselves. Will the ICC ever realise the true meaning of ‘spreading the game’ and ‘primacy to Test cricket’? 

  Watching the Zimbabwean team celebrate like they did after the victory was what fans all over the world wanted to see for a long time. Zimbabwe’s earlier Test wins (over Pakistan and India) may have come against stronger teams, but according to me, the win on Saturday might just be the sweetest so far, because the situation today is a lot more different than it was in the late nineties and early noughties – the days when Zimbabwe were at their best. 

  Well done, Team Zimbabwe. Here’s hoping for brighter things to come. 

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