Bulawayo – Boycotts, protests and the occasional surprise victory once ensured Zimbabwe’s place in cricket’s consciousness, yet now they are battling for relevance, reduced to facing Singapore, Jersey and the United States this month for a World Cup berth.
Earning a position at the Twenty20 showpiece in Australia this October has become a critical endeavour for Zimbabwe, who have failed to register a World Cup appearance in any format since 2016.
To break the drought, the African nation will have to overcome second- and third-tier sides during a qualifying tournament in Bulawayo starting on Monday.
“They are not automatically qualifying for the World Cup and these ICC (International Cricket Council) events,” former Zimbabwe bowler-turned television commentator, Ed Rainsford, told Reuters.
“Now you are having to brush shoulders with Oman, Jersey, Uganda and teams like this in the hope that you’re going to qualify. That’s a dangerous place to be.”
Recent events show that it has become an appropriate place to be, albeit an undignified one for a relatively well-funded, Test-playing outfit struggling to compete against poorly-resourced, low-ranking amateurs.
Over the past five years, off-field corruption scandals have tarnished the legacies of Zimbabwean icons Heath Streak and Brendan Taylor, and on the field the team suffered humiliating series defeats to Ireland, Afghanistan, Netherlands and Namibia.
They also lost matches that they were expected to win against Singapore, Scotland and the United Arab Emirates.
The loss to UAE caused the team to miss the 50-overs World Cup in 2019, underscoring the fall of a side once recognised for punching above their weight.
The political tumult that Zimbabwe experienced under the rule of Robert Mugabe in the mid-2000s became intertwined with cricket.
It ended many playing careers, most notably those of protesters Henry Olonga and Andy Flower, and left scars that never healed.
Test triumphs over Bangladesh and Pakistan in the early 2010s offered fans some hope, as did one-day victories against India, New Zealand and Australia, but the side never progressed because weakened development pathways failed to churn out talent.
Now in their mid-thirties, Sean Williams, Craig Ervine, Regis Chakabva and Sikandar Raza are the only remaining active players to have brought up three figures at the top level.
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Zimbabwe’s domestic league has failed to produce a single international centurion with a first-class debut since 2007. Adding insult to injury, English county clubs snap up many young individuals who show promise, such as Nick Welch and Ed Byrom.
“As a Test-playing nation… you’ve got to be thinking progressively, you’ve got to be thinking about the next crop of players coming through,” Rainsford said.
“It’s just meandered through the last 10 to 12 years. Zimbabwe cricket has never been where they are right now and it’s actually quite scary.”
As the team’s prospects have diminished, so too has interest in Zimbabwe from the global cricket fraternity.
“I think the world of cricket have said, ‘Zimbabwe needs to do what they need to do, we can’t continue to molly-coddle them’.”