Cricket
Liam Brickhill 542d

How did it get this bad for Zimbabwe?

"Oh my goodness, what is going on? What is going on?"

Former Zimbabwe fast bowler Ed Rainsford bawls his exasperated disbelief in the commentary box. It is the morning of the third ODI against India and Zimbabwe have just lost their fourth wicket in as many balls to slump to 104 for 7. Harare Sports Club is virtually empty, and at Castle Corner one spectator stands motionless, his arms spread in supplication at the ghastly rout unfolding in the middle. Another waves a hand dismissively towards the field, shrugs, and turns away.

Zimbabwe fold for their lowest total of the series - 123 all out. This was India's 12th straight ODI win against them - their best winning streak against any team - and the way things are looking one might be forgiven for asking whether Zimbabwe might ever beat India again. That may sound alarmist, and all teams go through peaks and troughs, but Zimbabwe's public and humiliating disintegration in the last week has the feel of a new low.

How did it get this bad?

Even die-hard local cricket fans have had enough. Witness the hand-written signs that were held up in an impromptu fan protest during the second game. "Zim cricket players should be arrested and face treason!!" screamed one placard. "We cannot support disaster, catastrophe, quagmire of epic proportions", moaned another.

Online, someone on the popular zimcricketforums opened a busy discussion thread by asking, "Would you be sad if Zimbabwe Cricket died?" and on social media there's enough shade being thrown to darken even the most viral-skateboarding-puppy strewn timeline. Though he never meant for his words to be reported, Vusi Sibanda's grumpy response to critical fans has been quoted in the media, as has his suggestion that the general situation in the country is making his job as a cricketer even harder than usual.

The backdrop to Zimbabwe's cricketing calamity is a cold, dry winter of hardship. A nationwide cash crisis and repeated water cuts are beginning to bite. And Zimbabwe Cricket has money problems of its own: it is reportedly USD 19 million in debt. That is, perhaps, not exactly breaking news, but Zimbabwe's position and stature in the changing theatre of global cricket is also shifting and the stakes are getting higher. At the same time the team continues to slide down the rankings. They have not played enough Tests recently to earn a rating - they are just 10th by default - and face having to go through a qualifying tournament to make the 2019 World Cup. Failure to do so would bring financial ruin.

Recent backroom events will have added to Zimbabwe's worries - financial and otherwise. Dav Whatmore's severance package could allegedly set them back more than USD 400,000, according to an unnamed source in the local press. Discussion over Whatmore's exit, 18 months into a four-year tenure and just days before India arrived in the country, has largely been drowned out by lamentations at the dire cricket, and neither ZC nor the man himself have made any comment on the matter.

Undoubtedly, the sudden departure of a head coach who had chaperoned the team to one-off wins over New Zealand, India and Pakistan and a series victory over Ireland - reasonable returns, all things considered - must have shaken Zimbabwe's dressing room. When he took the job before the 2015 World Cup, Whatmore insisted his eyes were "open" to the realities of Zimbabwean cricket. Despite his successes, his frustrations in the role were apparent, and not everyone has been that surprised that it's come to this.

Acting head coach Makhaya Ntini's energy is undeniable, but the players are all over the place and after a dreadful first series new batting coach Lance Klusener must be wondering what he's got himself into - though the team's initial impressions of him have been positive. Klusener is the latest in a revolving door of consultants, captains, convenors and coaches for Zimbabwe since India's brief winter sojourn to the country around this time last year, a factor that might be taken as a further symptom of Zimbabwe's troubles. Spare a thought for Graeme Cremer, Zimbabwe's fourth captain in 11 months. What's his next move?

Meanwhile, his counterpart MS Dhoni has apparently begun the holiday he had aimed to take at the end of this tour a little early, kicking back with some FIFA on the Playstation, room service in his hotel room, and even finding the time to pose for pictures while seated on a local police motorcycle. Best tour ever. And all good fun, but the lightheartedness with which India are sailing through this makes Zimbabwe's malaise all the more sombre in comparison.

Even the tour stats are barmy. Zimbabwe expended 29 wickets for 417 runs in the three-match one day series, while India lost only three batsmen (or two, depending on how you look at it: Karun Nair was out twice) while cruising to 428 runs in 35 fewer overs.

The bowlers are not striking, but it is the batting that appears worst off, contributing an average of 14.38 runs per wicket in the ODIs. Injuries to Sean Williams and Craig Ervine have not helped, but fragile batting is an old problem for Zimbabwe, and points towards deeper issues. In his recently published memoir of his time in Zimbabwe as national coach, Alan Butcher explains that Hamilton Masakadza's mental approach at the crease was: "I'm thinking 'I mustn't fail'." That statement, indicative of a generally defensive mindset throughout the team, was made four years ago. Has anything changed? Zimbabwe are right back where they started. The problems are deep-rooted and systemic, and there are no clear solutions in the short term.

The blame should not be directed towards the players. They are what they are. The reality is that this group are close to being Zimbabwe's best available cricketers in the current system. They are not in control of this ship, nor have they ever been. Contracts, the domestic structure, administrative staff: all are shrinking. There is increasing uncertainty over where exactly Zimbabwe fit into cricket's wider structure, wedged between the rest of the Full Members and the Associates. There is promise among Zimbabwe's rookie and Under-19 cricketers, but it was ever thus and young talent needs a healthy ecosystem in which to flourish.

Many of Zimbabwe's national-team cricketers have walked this road for more than a decade now. One wonders how much they have left. In the final reckoning for a team that loses more than it wins, the distinction between losing despite your best efforts, and just giving up, is what counts. "Of ordinary cricketers there is little to be said when they are not doing well," wrote Neville Cardus; "On such occasions we overlook them." Unless they can find a way out of this mess, what is left to be said about Zimbabwe?

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