By Joel Dubber
(Reuters) – As the heavyweights of international cricket set their sights on lifting the World Cup at Lord’s in the English summer, Zimbabwe are confronted with the reality that for the first time in four decades they won’t feature in the showpiece event.
Instead of plotting upsets on cricket’s biggest stage, they will be playing for pride at home in a low-key series starting April 10.
They will be playing the United Arab Emirates – the same team that deprived them of a World Cup berth by way of an unexpected three run victory in last year’s qualifying tournament.
Zimbabwe Cricket (ZC) have increasingly struggled to schedule high quality fixtures as their financial position worsens.
Touring depends on the agreeability of foreign boards – a tour of India slated for this month was quietly shelved earlier in the year – while hosting top-ranked teams is expensive.
In a statement, ZC said that a recently proposed one-day international tour by Afghanistan wasn’t viable, despite the boards agreeing to share expenses, because of “the prohibitive costs of broadcasting the matches live on television”.
The situation has left Zimbabwe, who last played at international level four months ago during a tour of Bangladesh, sliding further away from the mainstream and into cricket’s second tier.
After the UAE series, their next assignment will be a limited-overs tour of the Netherlands in June.
The desperate economic state of the country, where inflation has now reached a decade-high 59.39 percent on the back of foreign currency shortages, has impacted cricket operations at all levels.
Zimbabwe’s provincial first-class tournament, the Logan Cup, is contested by four franchise teams and provides a vital proving ground for players with national team ambitions – when it’s not being disrupted.
“It’s really important playing club and in particular franchise cricket as that’s the build up to the international stage for us”, wicketkeeper Regis Chakabva, 31, told Reuters.
“As players we always want to play more games but unfortunately this season has been really short for us.”
The 2018-19 season featured just 12 matches. One match was postponed for two months, while two matches were abandoned after a 150 percent increase in fuel prices spurred civil unrest in the capital city, Harare.
“Nothing beats game time and hopefully the administration resolves that next season”, the test centurion concluded.
Before the season commenced, ZC abolished the Rising Stars team – an academy initiative designed to give young players extra exposure.
With fewer teams, Zimbabwe’s small talent pool is less thinly spread. However, the number of matches each team played reduced from eight to six.
Ryan Burl, who featured regularly for the Rising Stars after making his one-day international debut in 2017, says that prior to the Logan Cup he had never played a game of cricket longer than two days.
“It was completely new to me, and I loved it from my first game”, the 24-year-old told Reuters.
“When I left high school, I used to be quite an aggressive batter who played shots from ball one. But this long format found a whole new side to me which I never knew existed – being patient and understanding the game better.”
The country’s economic woes hit cricket hardest at grassroots level.
Harare’s premier club competition, the Vigne Cup, featured four divisions at the turn of the century. Now it can only sustain two.
As long-established clubs have slipped out of existence, the league has experienced a rise in the number of nomadic teams.
Of the eight clubs in the first division, only two maintain their own venues. This has resulted in a phenomenon of having more teams than grounds to play on, which causes challenges for fixture fulfillment.
“Here in Zimbabwe most clubs do not have grounds”, said Daniel Jakiel, 28, a fast bowler from the itinerant Rainbow Cricket Club.
Teams like Rainbow rely on schools or the remaining established clubs, Takashinga and Old Hararians, making their facilities available.
“Some of the clubs, they came from their own areas so they have their grounds. But some of the clubs, like us, we are based in Harare town so we don’t have a ground yet.”
Jakiel, who works as a legal clerk, acknowledges the sacrifice that club cricketers must make in a country with more than 80 percent unemployment.
“It’s difficult sometimes, but I have to try to manage my time and balance my practise and work”, he said.
“Some of the players, they might have problems (with) transport and kit as well. Here it’s difficult to buy kit when you are not working. So those are some of the challenges they face, most players.”
Despite the hardships that players at all levels face, their unwavering love of cricket serves as a beacon of hope for the future of the game in Zimbabwe.
(Editing by Christian Radnedge)