How cricket is at a crossroads in Zimbabwe

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By Al Jazeera I Enock Muchinjo

HARARE: Brendan Taylor, former Zimbabwe cricket captain, was handed a three-year ban earlier this year for failing to report a match-fixing approach from a trip to India.

He made the trip in October 2019 where he received $15,000 which he claimed he was blackmailed into accepting by his hosts using a video of him taking cocaine.

The suspension has brought back into the limelight the plight of players and the state of the game in Zimbabwe where cricket has a significant fanbase.

Taylor, who accepted his offence, said he had been under financial pressure because the players had not been paid for six months around the time of his India trip.

At that time, the country was suspended by the International Cricket Council (ICC) for government interference in the affairs of the governing body, Zimbabwe Cricket (ZC), which came after a government-appointed body, that controls all sports in the country, fired top ZC officials on several charges, including financial mismanagement.

ZC, which is often in financial hardship but claims to have now completed payment of huge debts running into nearly $20m, has been forced to operate under controlled funding from the ICC.

The ZC suspension in 2019 therefore meant ICC funding was frozen and players had to bear the brunt of it.

The ICC suspension was eventually lifted later that year after the sacked officials were reinstated.

Players were then awarded a lump sum for the six months they were owed.

By early 2020, ZC announced it had reduced salaries by 30 percent, which was followed, until the present, by frequent delays in payments.

Zimbabwe failed to qualify for the 2019 World Cup, the first time it missed the tournament since 1983.© Provided by Al Jazeera Zimbabwe failed to qualify for the 2019 World Cup, the first time it missed the tournament since 1983.

ZC chief Tavengwa Mukuhlani defended the cuts when he revealed the move two years ago, saying it was a necessary measure to “make sacrifices today and survive tomorrow”.

The delays, Mukuhlani explained to Al Jazeera, were due to ICC’s strict financial controls.

He rejected allegations of misadministration, saying he had done well under the circumstances, especially after clearing what he refers to as “legacy debts”.

“We are in a very healthy financial situation,” Mukuhlani told Al Jazeera. “We are the only [sporting] association in the country that is audited by one of the big four in the world. We are the only association that constantly publishes results. We are moving from strength to strength.”

But the players are not totally satisfied with the board’s handling of things.

“I have played for Zimbabwe under some very difficult conditions in the past and we have gone for months without being paid,” said a senior player who requested anonymity.

“They need to improve their communication so that people can plan accordingly. Things have improved a bit, but there is just no consistency. My main issue with our administrators is that they don’t know how to communicate. Last year, when we had salary delays, we were left to just speculate.”

Talent drain

Disillusionment and lack of confidence in the system has also resulted in a serious talent drain, with many of the country’s brightest young players no longer finding the prospect of representing Zimbabwe appealing.

Dion Myers, a teenage prodigy and gifted young Black player, made his Test debut in 2021. He also played three One-Day Internationals and eight T20s.

A former headboy at one of the country’s prestigious schools, St George’s College in Harare, and Zimbabwe’s captain at the 2019 Under-19 World Cup, a national contract was almost guaranteed for Myers.

But he did not find it tempting and decided not to stick around.

Choosing to secure his future, the 19-year-old, at the advise of his family, is now studying Agriculture at Royal Agriculture University in Gloucestershire, England.

In 2018, Zimbabwe failed to qualify for the 2019 World Cup, the first time since 1983 they were not taking part in the global event. The team is currently sitting bottom of the ICC Cricket World Cup Super League, pathway to 2023 World Cup qualification.

Based on current form, they may miss out on another World Cup which will be a huge financial blow.

Former Zimbabwe bowler Gary Brent, recently appointed the national women’s team coach, believes the country will be stronger if everyone available was allowed to contribute.

“I see cricket in Zimbabwe as I have seen it for the last 15 years,” Brent told Al Jazeera. “We have great talent but we are unable to fully harness and nurture that talent to be a fully competitive side in international cricket.

“It starts with grassroots all the way to franchise cricket. It’s a pity we can’t all work together to build a solid Zimbabwe cricket team. We have to forget what happened, we can’t do anything about it. If we work together, I’m sure we will be extremely competitive.”

Struggling with facilities

The grassroots that Brent speaks of are no longer as vibrant as they used to be 20 years ago when cricket was almost competing with football for public interest.

Government schools like Prince Edward and Churchill, which used to churn out a great number of national team players, are struggling with facilities and now produce half-baked players – a far cry from the likes of Tatenda Taibu, Hamilton Masakadza, Elton Chigumbura, Prosper Utseya – all former national captains who were schooled at the latter courtesy of ZC bursaries.

It is not just the schools that are having to contend with poor infrastructure.

Across the country, club facilities, which used to be looked after by the national association, are in bad shape because members are unable to meet costs for maintenance.

It is a reflection of the club game itself which is virtually non-existent, with seasons not coming to logical conclusions even in pre-pandemic times.

The strength of club cricket was what bred Zimbabwe’s competitive streak at international level. Promotion to the first XI, sharing a changing room with national team players, or facing international players in the opposition, was something for a young player to treasure.

It is a feature of Zimbabwean cricket that is very hard to speak of in the past tense by those who witnessed those days, like Nick Chouhan, a former ZC board member in charge of development.

A one-time sport broadcaster and now a regular blogger on the history of sport in Zimbabwe, Chouhan reckons the demise of club cricket structures has hurt the national side.

“There is no formal league cricket structure now, they are just playing when they want,” Chouhan said.

“Some players practice but there no games. You can spend the whole day in the nets, but if you can’t play proper games, it won’t be the same. Years back, we had eight teams in the first league, eight teams in the second league, eight teams in the third league and six to seven teams in the fourth league. We played league cricket from September to March, and all were completed.

“These days a lot of our players go straight into the national team. In the other countries, guys play 200 to 300 games before international cricket.”