The gentle Jamaican drawl is one of the lesser-heard accents in Harare. But, in the first week of December, it could be heard in conversation with English inflections, South African slang and Australian twangs.
The source of the Caribbean crooning was the world’s most expensive and sought after twenty-over cricketer, Chris Gayle; the other voices belonged to the many internationals who had signed up to compete in the Stanbic Bank 20 Series, a domestic cricket competition in Zimbabwe.
In a massive coup, Zimbabwe Cricket (ZC) managed to lure Gayle and 19 other internationals to play in the tournament, all of them for minimal amounts. ZC achieved it through shrewd planning—the event would only last 10 days compared to others like it which go on for weeks—and careful spending of their steadily growing resources. The tournament underlined ZC’s success as the best thing to happen to sport in the country in the last decade.
Like other sectors of Zimbabwean life, such as industry and agriculture, cricket has stuttered through post-independence plights and been crippled by them. Unlike those things, it has found a way to stand up again and thrive. Interest from sponsors has sparked, the national team are the sweethearts of the world stage after they made their return to the elite form of the game—Test cricket—last August; and administration, while not perfect, is functioning.
Ten years ago that was not the case. ZC groped through its darkest period in the early 2000s as it tried to change the image of the sport from a colonial, white man’s game, to a game for the people. They introduced a program of aggressive transformation and were met with supreme resistance that culminated in a walkout by 13 white players in 2004, leaving the cricketing core stripped of experience.
As a solution, promising, young black players were flung onto the international stage and managed to steal the occasional win. Eventually, the mountain of losses was too big and Zimbabwe voluntarily withdrew from Test cricket. They were also forced to cancel all domestic competition as hyperinflation dried up their coffers. By 2008, cricket in Zimbabwe—like almost everything else—was dead.
It took a small collection of determined men to breathe some life back into it. Ozias Bvute, the managing director of ZC, who was blamed for the collapse of the game, played a leading role in its regeneration. He secured sponsors, Stanbic Bank, Croco Motors and Delta Beverages, and pushed for a franchise system with five teams spread across the country. Bvute argued that this would professionalize domestic cricket and allow for greater development. Slowly, funds dripped in and within two years, the system was declared fruitful.
The real roots of its success came from the behind-the-scenes work. Many of the players who had walked away were persuaded back into the fold. Former opening batsmen, Grant Flower, returned as batting coach to the national team, former captains Heath Streak and Alistair Campbell joined as bowling coach and chairman on the cricket committee respectively. Players who had left, such as Gavin Ewing, came home to play in the new franchise system.
Zimbabwe also secured foreign assistance. Englishman, Alan Butcher, was named head coach; former Australian fast-bowler, Jason Gillespie, signed on to coach one of the franchises; the Mid-West Rhinos, New Zealand all-rounder Chris Harris, was put in charge of the under-19s and stints from South Africa’s Allan Donald and Lance Klusener also added to the knowledge base. Talent emerged from regions that were previously unexplored such as, Masvingo, where left-arm fast bowler Brian Vitori was found.
Bvute and his staff also invited Australia, New Zealand and South Africa to send their A teams to play a series in Zimbabwe in a bid to ready them for a Test return. All of them agreed and although Zimbabwe did not win many matches, they competed. The practice games also allowed them to compile a squad of their best players, led by Brendan Taylor, the only white player who had not joined the rebels. Taylor, who was 17 at the time, did not want to let politics influence his sporting choices. His decision earned him the respect of his peers and countrymen, who rallied behind him as they made their Test comeback in August against Bangladesh.
In the seven months since then, Zimbabwe has hosted three incoming tours: Bangladesh, Pakistan and New Zealand and won the first one. They also visited New Zealand. Despite heavy defeats, their potential was evident and they have hope of growing as money and interest flow in. Interest from influential people like Chris Gayle has helped.
“You can see Zimbabwe have improved, they are more competitive, and their development programs are coming together,” he said, in that same drawl that, for one week in December, was the most popular voice in Harare.
One word sums up the beautiful game in Zimbabwe over the last five years and it’s not a very complimentary one—Asiagate. The saga has just about come full circle after it first emerged that matches played by a parks team masquerading as the Zimbabwean national team between 2007 and 2009, were fixed in favor of gamblers in Asian countries, which included Thailand and Malaysia. Eighty players have since been suspended for their role in colluding with Asian betting syndicates and Henrietta Rushwaya, former Zimbabwe Football Association (ZIFA) chief executive, has been arrested on allegations of bribery and match fixing.
The stains of this scandal will taint the game for years to come. Although ZIFA has undergone a stringent clean-up, it still faces a FIFA investigation, which could see the suspended players and administrators banned for life and would leave the game grappling for relevance as it enters qualifying events for the World Cup and the African Nations’ Cup (AFCON). The country’s sports minister, David Coltart, has described football as being “riddled with corruption,” and admitted that the “structure of the professional game has declined.”
One of the reasons for the downward trend was that Zimbabwe football was highly politicized. President Robert Mugabe’s nephew, Leo, presided over ZIFA for three terms and is thought to be responsible for its deterioration. He is said to have removed administrations which were aligned with the opposition—the Movement for Democratic Change—and replaced them with officials sympathetic to the Mugabe regime, with little or no experience of running a national sport.
Under him, most local clubs were running losses and at national level funds had been exhausted. ZIFA currently operates out of a small, rundown house on Livingstone Street in Harare, where the curtains droop from the windows and the equipment inside is rundown. Zimbabwe is likely one of the few African countries where football is not the most popular sport. In a place as impoverished looking as this, it’s easy to see how players and administrators could be lured into corruption and may agree to be co-opted, even if it will worsen the image of the sport and the nation.
The country’s premier league is not televised by the national broadcaster because it is too expensive for them to do so. Cricket has overtaken it, in financial terms, with corporates preferring to put their money into a sport that gets wider exposure. Even smaller disciplines like hockey attract greater publicity than events on the football pitch.
In September, Zimbabwe hosted the African hockey championships in a newly renovated stadium in Bulawayo to public acclaim. A month earlier, their national football team played a friendly match against current Africa Cup of Nations Champions, Zambia. The event was so low key that the visiting team did not even have proper arrangements for their pre-match training session. ZIFA’s offices had a total of two employees manning the front desk the day before the match and neither had information about where Zambia could train; whether tickets were still available and at what price and where the new chief executive, Jonathan Mashingaidze, who had agreed to have an interview with an international media organization, was to be found.
The lack of activity around the match served as an indication of the dwindling interest in football in the country, from all spheres. While public interest is not especially high, player participation is also starting to dwindle and Shingirai Masakadza is an example of that. A tall, athletic young man who could make his name in almost any sport, Masakadza was part of the generation of black school-going kids that cricket left behind. Unlike his brother, Hamilton, he was not offered a scholarship to a prestigious, formerly white school and instead made his name kicking a football in a high-density area.
Masakadza was contracted as a professional footballer with one of the country’s “two big” clubs: Dynamos and Highlanders of Bulawayo, but struggled to hold down his place. In that time, he was contacted by a former school coach, who offered him the chance to join one of Zimbabwe’s cricket franchises. Masakadza was told that if he just ran in a little quicker and hit the deck a little harder, he could develop into a genuine fast bowler and may represent the country.
He duly swapped his football for a cricket ball and has no regrets about his decision. “Cricket offered me better opportunities than football. Right now I am in a position that most people would only dream of,” he said, after he was picked for the 2011 Cricket World Cup squad. Masakadza is living proof that cricket— not football—is being seen as the path to success in Zimbabwe. For a country that was on the verge of FIFA World Cup qualification in 1993, that is sad.