After two decades of turmoil, Zimbabwe are a cricket team slowly getting back on track.
After two decades of political turmoil, rampant corruption and administrative chaos, a new dawn is breaking for Zimbabwe cricket.
With Test match status reinstated, regular fixtures against high-quality opposition on the books and a strong showing in the recent T20 World Cup qualifiers, all signs point to a team back on track.
In perhaps the biggest vote of confidence from the sport’s gatekeepers, Cricket Australia is preparing to host Zimbabwe in a three-game ODI blitz in Townsville next month – the first visit by a Zimbabwe XI since they were put to the sword by Matthew Hayden in an infamously one-sided tour in 2004.
Returning head coach and former captain David Houghton said the upcoming trip would be key in what he sees as the start of a “rapid rise” for The Chevrons.
“The guys are so excited about this trip to Australia because you only get better by playing the best,” Houghton told The Australian from Harare.
The coach pulled no punches about the team’s chances against a near-full-strength Australian squad, admitting that even one victory would do “huge things” for them.
However, with six ODIs against both Bangladesh and India at home before the trip across the Indian Ocean, Houghton is upbeat about the squad’s match fitness heading into the Townsville matches.
He’s also a veteran of the art of giant killing, having taken part in Zimbabwe’s sensational victory over an Australian team boasting the likes of Dennis Lillee, Jeff Thomson and Greg Chappell at the 1983 World Cup.
“To suddenly be facing players who were your heroes growing up and then actually win, it was stunning – and it showed that it was possible,” he said.
“There are now far more cricketers with much more skill and experience in Zimbabwe than from back in my day.
“This current team are a very talented bunch, so it hasn’t been difficult to get them playing some aggressive cricket.”
Houghton took over at Harare Sports Club in June – his second stint in the role – after Zimbabwe slumped to a 2-3 defeat against Namibia in a T20I series.
He’s since helped turn things around in a whirlwind few months, guiding the team to victory in their T20 World Cup qualifiers to secure his men their place in the tournament in October.
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“Having just played this qualifier (for the World T20) as the No.1 seed, we were expected to win – that’s pressure,” Houghton said.
“You get it wrong for two overs in T20 and you’re under the pump. Hopefully the result shows we’re on track to be somewhere near those heights we scaled in the past.” Houghton is credited with helping develop the golden age of Zimbabwean cricket during his previous tenure as national coach in the late-1990s.
He first stepped into the role following his retirement from playing in 1997, having represented Zimbabwe in three world cup campaigns, and captained the side in their first Test against India in 1992.
Taking the reins in both hands, he first nurtured, and then unleashed a highly underrated squad on an unsuspecting field in the 1999 World Cup – with Andy and Grant Flower, Neil Johnson and Heath Streak among the key players.
An inspired campaign saw Zimbabwe swoop into the “Super 6” stage of the tournament, coming close to a semi-finals berth.
At the turn of the millennium, the future seemed bright for Africa’s newest cricketing power.
However, by 2003 discontent was brewing in the tent.
Player allegations of unfair racial quotas and financial interference from the oppressive Robert Mugabe government threatened to derail the team ahead of a World Cup they were jointly hosting with South Africa and Kenya, all while the storm of a nation in political turmoil raged in the background.
Matters came to a head in their opening World Cup fixture that year, when Andy Flower and teammate Henry Olonga donned black armbands to mourn the “death of democracy” in their country.
Both men were forced to retire and leave the country immediately. Thus began Zimbabwe cricket’s darkest chapter.
Over the next 15 years, the team would be beset by corruption, stripped of Test status multiple times and lose a generation of budding players. The ICC imposed austerity measures on Zimbabwe Cricket to ensure it repaid its debts.
When the Mugabe regime was turfed out following a coup d’etat in 2017, hopes were rekindled for the future of sport in the country.
However, it would take another five years of poor results on the cricket field before Houghton – who had since left to ply his trade as a coach in English County cricket – would be called to serve his country once again.
“It’s not a job I was really looking for, but when your country calls, you answer,” he said.
“Things have changed a lot over the last decade for this team – we used to have no first-class system and now we have an increasingly vibrant one, with County professionals coming over every year, and as that system grows we’re producing better cricketers.
“The guys still need to learn how to combine what they’ve got talent-wise with the more tactical side of things – that’s what I’m trying to develop this time around.”
As is often the case with developing teams, the prestige and financial allure posed by overseas leagues is the biggest obstacle moving forward.
“We could pick almost an entire test team from players playing in England that would be quite good,” Houghton said, noting he’d like to see English internationals Sam and Ben Curran and fellow County players Gary Ballance and Mick Welsh pull on the red and yellow of their home country.
However, with a T20 World Cup fast approaching, Houghton said helping his young group succeed on the big stage with the white ball, like their heroes two and a half decades before them, was his immediate focus.
“This new crop is very excitable and has the skills to push the best teams to their limits,” he said.
“We’re under no pressure in these upcoming games down under – Australia doesn’t want to lose to Zimbabwe, which puts us in a great place heading into the tour.”
– The Australian
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