Zimbabwe shows signs of return to Tests

A new league structure of regional first class matches, funded jointly by the International Cricket Council (ICC) and local franchising sponsors, is energising the game here. Players are being paid US dollar match fees, win bonuses and awards for centuries or five wicket hauls.

Under a team of full-time coaches headed by David Houghton and former national captain Heath Streak, about 80 young and experienced players have shown such progress over the last three months that convenor of natonal selectors Alistair Campbell is prompted to suggest Zimbabwe will be playing Tests in two years. Houghton believes it might only be one year.

Cricket in Zimbabwe was getting nowhere even seven years after being forced out of Tests following a series of embarrassingly bad results. Sri Lanka, New Zealand and England were the main instigators by declining to meet future commitments.

But instead of rebuilding through a first class domestic league and concentrating on three- or four-day matches, they almost exclusively played the quick-fire versions.

All that changed with an exploratory visit to Zimbabwe last year by former West Indies captain Conrad Hunte at the head of an ICC delegation.

Hunte came up with a plan designed to springboard Zimbabwe’s return to Tests on merit. His idea was for franchised teams to be established in five main regions with local characteristics and names such as Mountaineers (Eastern Districts), Southern Rocks (Bulawayo) and Mashonaland Eagles (Harare) so as to provide healthy rivalry within a first-class professional league structure.

It began with the new 2009-10 season in September. Cricket in Zimbabwe was also decentralised by the league, with the national body, Zimbabwe Cricket headed by chairman Peter Chingoka, becoming little more than a general admin and finance focus.

Kenyon Ziehl, who runs the Midlands team, told AFP: "Our league is fully professional on player salaries, each regional franchise having a chief executive, general manager, enthusiastic committee and proper accounting.

"Because of this set-up our national squad will consequently get better and better and there are early signs of this."

As it happens, Zimbabwe remains on the official ICC "forward programme" of Tests with series scheduled this year against West Indies, Australia and England. These won’t happen, but the fixtures have not been removed.

According to Houghton, a former senior Zimbabwe batsman (he once scored 266 runs against Sri Lanka), who was engaged as a senior coach told AFP: "Once we get the fast bowling sorted out by Heath Streak as national bowling coach — it is presently not up to strength — I reckon we will be ready."

Houghton has been working with national coaching director Andy Waller, a former Test all-rounder, and other coaches. The new Zimbabwe league has already attracted several former Test players, such as Dion Ebrahim, Hamilton Masakadza (a recent double century), Vusi Sibanda (averaging 100 in the league), Tatenda Taibu and John Rennie.

There are also efforts being made to secure the return, in the England off-season, of Sean Ervine (Hampshire) and Murray Goodwin (Sussex), the latter in recent years being consistently at or near the top of the English County Cricket batting averages.

In addition, Ray Price, Greg Lamb (Northants), Rickey Wessels (son of former South Africa captain Kepler), Graeme Cremer, Gavin Ewing, Elton Chigumbura, present captain Prosper Utseya and Charles Coventry (197 runs in a recent ODI) form the basis of a national squad.

They will be off to the West Indies next month for ODIs and Twenty-20s. Ziehl foresees a series of four-day matches being arranged "before very long" against Test nation "A" sides so as to provide further experience and incentive.

Good results from such matches will be critical if they are to presage a formal application by Zimbabwe Cricket to the ICC for a new and rejuvenated Zimbabwe to resume its place as a Test cricket nation.