It is, for instance, where 10 teams have gathered to tussle over which two of them will go to the men’s World Cup in India in October. Those sides will be West Indies and Sri Lanka, convention will chorus. Things may be that simple, but it is to be hoped they are not.
They weren’t in 2018, when Afghanistan not only qualified for the World Cup but thumped the Windies in the final. Zimbabwe, also then the hosts, were shut out of a World Cup for the first time after they made their tournament debut in 1983. The home side and Scotland, in particular, suffered seriously from poor umpiring decisions.
“The scars of 2018 are always going to be there, whether we qualify here and supposedly put it to bed or not,” Zimbabwe captain Craig Ervine said on Saturday. “That’s probably something that even when I’m 80 years old, I’m still going to be thinking back to; that moment against the UAE.”
The United Arab Emirates all but sealed the Zimbabweans’ fate by winning a rain-affected Super Six game by five runs.
The 2018 qualifiers reflected the changing shape of cricket in that, for the first time, current Test-playing teams were involved: Zimbabwe, West Indies, Afghanistan and Ireland. Three of them are back this time but the Afghans, a rising force in the world game, have made it through the front door of direct qualification.
The next new kids on the big block could be Nepal, who have won 13 of their 14 internationals this year, all of them ODIs. They will expect much from legspinner Sandeep Lamichhane, their all-time leading wicket-taker with 189 strikes in 86 games in the two formats. “When he’s in the team, whenever we need a wicket he delivers,” Nepal captain Rohit Paudel said on Saturday. “When he’s not there, we struggle to get wickets.”
Lamichhane’s cricketing prowess has made him a star far beyond the boundary. However, he is in Zimbabwe controversially having been allowed by the Nepal Supreme Court to leave his country despite being charged with rape. The court’s decision was welcomed jubilantly in Nepal, and Lamichhane is unlikely to face protest action in a place where people have their own problems to live with.
Nonetheless, there is drama in the fact that Zimbabwe and Nepal will clash on the first day of the tournament at Harare Sports Club on Sunday. The Nepalese are accustomed to playing in front of vast crowds at home, but Zimbabwe are among the best supported non-Asian teams. Time was when they struggled to draw more than a smattering of spectators even in their own backyard. Why had the numbers swelled?
“A lot of it is down to our head coach, Dave Houghton,” Ervine said. “He’s changed things around for us. We are playing an exciting brand of cricket and we’re winning games, and a lot of people want to get involved with that. That’s what’s been happening over the last year or so. Qualifying for the  T20 World Cup also brought in a lot of support for us. If we qualify for the 50-over World Cup it will make a massive difference for our country.”
Another cause of Zimbabwe’s burgeoning fanbase is that the national football team has been suspended from competition since February 2022 because of government interference. Football is easily the country’s most popular sport, even though the national side have never reached a World Cup. The cricket team, while they are among the lesser entities on the global scale, swim in a smaller pond and punch further above their weight than their football counterparts.
Zimbabwe have won five of their eight completed white-ball games this year, and their chances of being one of the last two teams standing are enhanced by the Netherlands and Scotland sending depleted squads across the equator. Five of the seven bowlers that the Dutch deployed in their shock win over South Africa in the T20 World Cup in Adelaide in November, have put county ahead of country. For the same reason the Scots are missing four players.
Sunday’s other match is at Takashinga, also in Harare, where West Indies will take on the United States – who put up 312/6 in a warm-up match at Bulawayo Athletic Club on Tuesday, only for Ireland to win by five wickets with 29 balls to spare. That result didn’t raise the hopes of West Indies assistant coach Carl Hooper, who was asked at a press conference in Bulawayo on Saturday whether the Windies – twice winners of the World Cup in each of the white-ball formats but now a spent force – could dwindle further.
“If we don’t qualify we go a step lower,” Hooper said. “Never did I think I’d live to see the day where West Indies are trying to qualify for major tournaments. I sat in Australia [where the Windies failed to reach the second round of last year’s T20 World Cup], and here we are in Zimbabwe.
“No disrespect to the other teams but we’re playing against the likes of the USA, Nepal and Scotland. Even Afghanistan is ahead of us. Bangladesh has gone ahead of us. So this is distressing. This game continues to remind you that until you start doing the right things you can go lower.”
Like Zimbabwe’s pitches, which tend towards flat. However, the fact that matches will start at 9am local time gives fast bowlers reason to be cheerful. That’s 30 minutes earlier than in 2018, when the qualifiers were played in the longer days of March. With no floodlights in operation the idea is to make the best use of the available sunlight – of which there is, happily, an abundance even in winter. But the earlier start will add to the batters’ challenge in the initial overs. How much?
We’ll know by the time the final is played at HSC on July 9. All present will also know what life is like in Zimbabwe, albeit it for three scant weeks and from the pampered perches offered in some of the better hotels.
As some visitors were ferried towards one of those hotels in Harare from the airport on Friday, their driver pointed out two men running down the road for all their worth. They were chased by a throng of people. All involved had left a parked minibus, where police were in attendance.
The minibus, our driver explained with a languid laugh, had been operating as a taxi but without a permit, and had been pulled over by the cops as a consequence. The running men were the driver and the conductor, who held the takings. The people in pursuit were the passengers, who were desperate to get their money back.
It seems always thus in Zimbabwe: rights, wrongs, and attempts, however hopeless, to get back to better days that never existed. Past and future are fuzzy. What’s in sharp focus is now. Or, as a waiter at a boundaryside pub at HSC said on Saturday, aghast that two patrons had declined another drink because they had a big Sunday of work looming: “What do you mean tomorrow? We are talking about today.”