Minnows brave ridiculous odds
If logic applied to all sports results then a billion-dollar betting industry would collapse and the one-off Test between South Africa and Zimbabwe that begins tomorrow at the Harare Sports Club would conclude with the most one-sided contest this year, if not ever. Fortunately, sport is unpredictable.
Nonetheless, one reputable bookmaker (if that’s not an oxymoron) was offering the eye-watering odds of 17-1 against victory for the home side this week and an equally breath-catching 1-0.12 on a South African victory.
That means 12 cents won for every rand you bet, for the uninitiated. In a two-horse race where either can theoretically fall, they are remarkable numbers.
There is history, of course. Ten years ago the two sides met at Newlands and the Test match was over midway between tea and the close of play on day two. The tourists were bowled out for 54 and Graeme Smith declared that evening on 340-3, having helped himself to 121 runs.
The next day the Zimbabweans performed far less embarrassingly with 265, but still lost by an innings and 21 runs.
Underprepared in 2005, very little has changed today: “We haven’t played very much international cricket recently, and that’s obviously not ideal,” Test captain Brendan Taylor told the Mail & Guardian this week. “But this is an opportunity to showcase our individual skills and also to perform as a team, perhaps even reach above expectations.”
If there was a “brave face” trophy at the International Cricket Council’s Annual Awards banquet, Taylor would be on the short list. A very short list.
Few traditions remain sacrosanct in cricket, but one of them is the “purity” of the Test XI. No semblance of experimentation or “rotation” has been tolerated in South Africa and the Australians, after a brief flirtation with revolving fast bowlers three years ago, have vowed “never again”. The same applies to every other Test nation, while one-day internationals and T20 caps are considerably less highly valued.
So although Taylor and his colleagues will face the full force of Dale Steyn, Morné Morkel and Vernon Philander, they will be spared them in the three ODIs in Bulawayo that follow the Test match. Not that they will find life easy against the pace of Marchant de Lange and Kyle Abbott, and Mthokozisi Shezi’s swing may be underrated.
The three frontline quick men will be back in the country the following week, however, when Australia arrive to complete a triangular tournament in which the three countries will play each other twice before a final.
“Everyone expects us to come third, so at least we won’t have the burden of high expectations to weigh us down,” Taylor says. “We really have nothing to lose – South Africa and Australia will probably be criticised even if we run them close, so they might feel they are in a no-win situation. And if we can run them close – take the games deep into the final overs – then a surprise is not out of the question,” Taylor said.
It is hard to imagine, but not impossible. Taylor is good enough to score a century against any team, as is Hamilton Masakadza. All the seamers enjoy some early morning movement in winter conditions at Harare Sports Club, while the batsmen routinely have it their way under the afternoon sun.
If the planets align, the coin lands correctly, the local fast bowlers find some early edges and the batsmen keep their composure, then an upset is possible. But still highly unlikely.
“We all have experience of what it takes to win against a major nation so I hope we won’t be overawed if the chance arises to do it again.
“There will be some young, inexperienced players involved but there will also be five of us with over 100 international caps. It’s up to us to lead the way,” Taylor said.
The only ODIs Zimbabwe have played this year were against ICC Associate nation Afghanistan. Things began well enough in the four-match series last month but ended horribly and attracted scorn in newspapers as the Asian minnows bounced back to level at 2-2.
“Zimbabwe has been asking for more international cricket for a long time, but it has been sporadic. Just when we start to perform with some consistency and get used to the standards required, it stops again. So it’s not ideal having only played against Afghanistan in the past six months, but we can’t afford to complain,” Taylor said, employing the brave face again.
“We have the two best teams in the world arriving in our territory, so we’re grateful for that and excited by the challenge. Of course it’s daunting, but Zimbabwe has a history of surprising the big teams occasionally – and that’s a legacy we would like to see again.
“Preparation hasn’t been ideal but you can’t go into an international fixture with the intention of ‘just competing’. You have to enter the contest with the intention of playing to win, and that’s obviously what we will be doing.”
Taylor doesn’t do bullshit. Like most Zimbabweans, black or white, life hasn’t been easy this past decade.
He and his players weren’t paid for five months; many contemplated giving the game up, and some did. The players went on strike and formed a players’ union with the assistance of the South African Cricketers Association and the Federation of International Cricketers’ Association.
Just a few days before the Test was due to begin, final contract details were still being negotiated between the players and Zimbabwe Cricket.
Taylor is right about one thing. The Proteas and the Australians
will be roundly criticised for anything less than overwhelming victories, and overwhelming victories
will be greeted with “so what?” reactions.
But don’t be surprised to see the Zimbabweans land a few decent punches of their own on their way to the canvas.