Heath Streak smiles during a match.

If Zimbabwe were to return to Test cricket today, it would be a sadder story.

Streak and several others would not be available – they’ve quit the game.

Smoke and mirrors
First-class cricket is anything but classy

Bullish rhetoric can’t cover up the unhealthy state of first-class cricket, reports Steven Price. Tournaments are being scrapped and the standard is poor.

If Zimbabwe were to resume playing Test cricket in the near future, success would depend on the strength of the first-class game which has to underpin the national side. While Zimbabwe has a long-established domestic structure, investigations show it is in a far from healthy state, despite bullish rhetoric from its own board.

Earlier this week, the country’s Twenty20 competition was suspended at less than 24-hours’ notice without any real explanation from the board. It is unclear if the Faithwear Cup, the provincial one-day competition scheduled to start at the end of the month, will progress as planned.

This is not the first time that Zimbabwe Cricket has scrapped tournaments. In 2005-06, the Logan Cup, the major competition which, apart from during the two World Wars, has run uninterrupted, was cancelled without reason.

After months of bluster and stalling, and despite angry assurances to the contrary, it was quietly shelved.

Locally, the word is that the poor standard on display in the B competition, which ended last week, has led to the latest decision.

[xhead] Shambolic logistics
The cricket was of extremely poor standard, and the logistics shambolic, a reporter who covered the games said. “Umpires came late or did not turn up…the issue seems to be that ZC employees are not motivated because of poor remuneration and the like. Scorers also failed to turn up, and the scoring was obviously not accurate.

With the national side unable to take part – they are in South Africa – it seems there was nothing like the required strength to allow a meaningful competition.

The declining standard of provincial cricket is all too evident to anyone who has watched it in recent years.

There’s no chance that you can compare the game today to five years back, one seasoned observer said. There were more guys to choose from who were capable of playing a game meeting the demands of Tests, unlike some of the youngsters playing today. They don’t know the meaning of keeping their wicket for long periods, or how to bowl long spells, how to concentrate.

As is the case in club cricket, the provincial sides are often woefully inexperienced and based on players barely out of school.

The situation is worsened by the increasing lack of high-quality coaches. The gap between the better players and the rest can be huge. Some of the personal performances in four- and one-day competitions have highlighted the gulf.

The situation has been further exacerbated by ZC’s decision to scrap the long-standing provincial structure. Many people feel that the reason for the move was to enable Peter Chingoka, ZC’s Chairman, to purge the game of those administrators who were leading moves to oust him. Chingoka justifies the act by claiming that it has brought cricket to new regions. The reality is that provincial sides are less representative, strengthened by players bussed in from Harare in a bid to even things up.

[xhead]Foreign teams
ZC has tried to up standards by bringing in foreign sides. Last season, Kenya sent an A side who were well beaten. But talk of sides and players from Asian countries have never materialised, and an ill-conceived plan between the Zimbabwe and South Africa boards to have the latter’s franchises take part in matches in Harare was quietly shelved when the South African sides refused to play ball. It highlights a bigger problem. Few people want to play inside Zimbabwe.

While the board can only work with the tools available to it, what is unforgivable is the lack of professionalism in its own operations. Last season it took almost four months for ZC to furnish the media with scorecards from the Logan Cup, so disastrous were the operations of its media department.

South Africa appears to represent the best chance Zimbabwe’s cricketers have to take part in serious competition. Even then, there are doubts in some quarters.

It’s difficult to gauge the standard as the only competition is from provincial sides there, one former administrator said. There is also a transformation programme at all levels in South Africa. As a result it is difficult to judge the team performances as they are not necessarily playing the best teams selected in South Africa.

Given all that is happening inside Zimbabwe, that the game is still being played to any degree has to be a plus. But nobody should be fooled that because a game is classified as first-class it means the standard is any good. The quality is poor and given the fragility of the infrastructure it is hard to see how, in the short term, it will get any better. All that anyone can hope for is that things limp along until the corner is turned.

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