If Zimbabwe cricket were a prize-fighter it would have long ago been counted out. So predictable have their defeats become that it has often felt like there is little point in them continuing to turn up. They exist precariously as a full member ICC nation in name only; devoid of structure, quality and worst of all fixtures.
Their Test match schedule has been all but non-existent, with the games fat cats having no interest in playing them. Instead, they scratch around picking up the occasional scrap here and there. A form of charity that usually manifests itself in the form of a swift and ritual hammering. They reside at the basement of Test cricket’s league table with zero points by virtue of their 100% record of failure. In the slightly more egalitarian world of international T20 they are placed below Scotland and in ODIs they are sandwiched at the bottom between Afghanistan and Ireland.
To drum up some competitive game time they recently conducted a white ball focused overseas tour against a couple of the more prominent Associate nations. Teams that are themselves starved of fixtures and developmental opportunities due to the chronic indifference of the ICC. Kicking their tour off in Scotland they limped to an embarrassing 1-1 draw. The 26-run loss that they recorded in Edinburgh was Scotland’s first victory in 24 attempts against a full ICC nation. Zimbabwe were partially able to redeem themselves in the second match with a six-wicket win, courtesy of a five-wicket haul from their skipper, Graeme Cremer.
This was followed by a series winning tour of the Netherlands that fell short of full ODI status. However, any small satisfaction was heavily tempered by the thumping 149-run defeat that they suffered in the final match.
The upcoming five-match rubber in Sri Lanka appeared to be merely an exercise in purgatory. Their recent struggles against associates looked set to be magnified in unfamiliar conditions and against far superior opposition. Sri Lanka are not exactly the force that they were in the golden days of Sangakkara and Dilshan. They had, after all, failed to make the semi-finals of the Champions Trophy but did record a memorable win, over eventual finalists India.
Amidst this backdrop, the best that any supporter of Zimbabwe cricket could have hoped for was for the team to at least be competitive. A solitary win, let alone a series victory looked so far out of reach as to be almost ludicrous.
However, the battered, ignored and largely forgotten old prize-fighter that is Zimbabwe cricket finally climbed from the canvas and steadied itself. Rather than coming out all guns blazing it suddenly fought with newfound fortitude and common sense. Readily identifying a Sri Lankan opponent in transition that lacked confidence and a sense of purpose.
It was critical that they hit the ground running and gave a good account of themselves in the opening match at Galle. They achieved this by surprising the Sri Lankans with their composure as they chased down, what was for them, a record target of 316. The six wicket victory coming with two overs to spare. A hundred from Solomon Mire and fifties from Sean Williams and Sikandar Raza were central to the triumph.
With heavy defeats coming in the second and third encounters it quickly felt that the initial victory had been placed into its correct context. Merely a rare and isolated show of defiance from a side lacking in consistent quality against a Sri Lankan team that had underestimated them and perhaps failed to prepare properly.
Any thoughts of this nature though were blown away in the final two games, as Zimbabwe posted a highly unlikely come from behind victory. The series decider was set up by a Craig Ervine inspired chase to win a rain reduced game by four wickets. In the final match, on a difficult pitch at Hambantota, Zimbabwe were able to restrict Sri Lanka to 203-8 (Raza 3-21, Cremer 2-23). The win came with 12 overs remaining but via the slim margin of three wickets (Hamilton Masakadza 73). The result leaving Sri Lanka stunned and Zimbabwe jubilant.
The optimistic will hope that this result marks a sea change for Zimbabwean cricket. If not mapping out a clear trajectory to the broad sunlit uplands it should at least instead wash away some of the recent embarrassments. They, at last, have a couple of reasons to be cheerful; with Sikander Raza’s aggressive batting (137 runs at an average of 68.50) paying off at critical times. Elsewhere, the top-order presence of Hamilton Masakadza (258 runs at 51.60) and Solomon Mire (211 runs at 42.20) were instrumental in helping them lay solid foundations to chase down targets.
The bowling, not for the first time, lacked penetration and the ability to capture wickets. However, on slow pitches, their spinners were able to exercise control over the Sri Lankan batsman. Despite only taking eight wickets between them the off-spinning all-rounders: Malcolm Waller and Raza were able to maintain series economy rates of well under five per over. Above all Zimbabwe led the way in the field where they were significantly sharper than the lacklustre Sri Lankans.
So what now for Zimbabwe? A single Test Match in Colombo awaits against their freshly vanquished opponents. Despite their recent success it is hard to envision them doing anything but losing decisively. Over the longer game, Sri Lanka’s additional class should tell and Zimbabwe’s lack of cutting edge with the ball will be exposed. They do though have the benefit of facing a team in disarray following the resignation of Angelo Mathews.
A defeat or even a draw for Sri Lanka would be catastrophic and lend credence to the view that they have entered into some form of unstoppable decline. Some will argue that the Zimbabwe resurgence is little more than an illusion. One that has only been made possible by the perceived decline of Sri Lankan cricket. Protestations abound as to the dark vortex that the islander’s cricket is sinking into.
Mostly, these prophecies seem premature if not absurd. Ultimately, all teams, at some point in their development must negotiate periods of transition. Don’t forget that it was only last year that they famously whitewashed Australia in a three match test series. Mostly, these doom laden attitudes do Zimbabwe a great disservice.
In retrospect those tours of Scotland and Netherlands were positive and now appear as a well-conceived idea. It gave the Zimbabweans some much needed competitive action and a chance, regardless of the results, to build momentum ahead of the Sri Lanka challenge.
The major problem facing them now is how to build on this progress. With no international cricket scheduled until Pakistan tour in March/April 2018, there is plenty of time for momentum to be lost. If the ICC is really serious about growing the global footprint of the game then it needs to start by doing more to support its least fashionable full member. Encouraging teams to give them the odd game or two would be a good and straightforward place to begin.