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South Africa bats for Zim cricket

Cricket South Africa (CSA) has once again emerged as the knight in shining armour, out to rescue Zimbabwe Cricket barely a year after cutting ties with the beleaguered country.

South Africa and India pledged before the International Cricket Council (ICC) board in Perth last weekend to assist the country in its efforts to build a competent Test side. ”The [ICC] board was informed that both the Board of Control for Cricket in India and Cricket South Africa [CSA]have offered playing and administrative support to Zimbabwe Cricket,” ICC communications officer James Fitzgerald told the Mail & Guardian this week.

Despite the confirmation coming straight from the headquarters of the sport in Dubai, CSA was still inexplicably cagey about its involvement with Zimbabwe Cricket. ”Any policy issue dealing with Zimbabwe Cricket will be discussed at Cricket South Africa board level. The ICC request is likely to be on the board’s agenda at its next meeting in February, with other relevant decisions taken at the last ICC executive board meeting,” said CSA spokesperson Kass Naidoo.

But she was the odd one out. Zimbabwe Cricket chief executive Ozias Bvute also confirmed that South Africa would resume close ties with his association.

”I can confirm that the suspension of the agreement we had with our neighbours, South Africa, has been lifted. We only need to sit down to work out the modalities of putting into motion the support Cricket South Africa will assist us with,” said Bvute.

The new development overturns former CSA president Norman Arendse’s decision to kick Zimbabwe out of the local league in mid-2008 after the political situation deteriorated to an alarming level. Zimbabwe Cricket was thrown into further turmoil when its key backer, South Africa, added its voice to the international condemnation of the country by withdrawing its support in the wake of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) pulling out of a violent election campaign.

From the feedback that the task force team sent to Zimbabwe in November gave to the ICC last Friday, it seemed Zimbabwe’s Test-playing days were facing an imminent end. The findings of the team, led by West Indies President Julian Hunte and ICC chief executive Haroon Lorgat, painted a gloomy picture of the poor state of the sport in the country. It reported an overwhelming consensus from all the stakeholders interviewed, including the Zimbabwe Cricket executive, that the team was in no position to resume playing Test cricket. This is as damning as it could get for a country that still struggled, even with Andy Flower rated as the best batsman in the world.

But thanks to the new administration in South Africa under the leadership of Mtutuzeli Nyoka, Zimbabwe have, according to the ICC, the chance to bounce back to top-class cricket in the next six months to two years. Those who have had the opportunity to watch Zimbabwe play in recent times might argue it would take more than a miracle for the team to recover that quickly.

The sport has been in free-fall since 2003 when the majority of top Zimbabwean players, such as Andy and Grant Flower, Heath Streak, Henry Olonga and Guy Whitall, left en masse shortly after the World Cup over the selection process.

In 2006 Zimbabwe voluntarily pulled out of Test cricket for what was supposed to be a stop-gap measure to fasttrack the development of a competitive side.

Sadly, as with everything else that has come to be associated with the once-prosperous country, the sport has gone from bad to worse.

Decaying playing facilities and schools that have yet to open as teachers battle government to receive their salaries in foreign currency have rendered the development of cricket virtually impossible.

England, New Zealand and Australia have led the call for Zimbabwe to be suspended as an ICC member and have refused to play the team to protest against the political intolerance bedevilling the country. Zimbabwe Cricket boss Peter Chingoka did not even attend the crucial meeting in Perth that had such a huge bearing on his union.

The Aussies accuse Chingoka of being a Robert Mugabe ally and made it clear that he would not be issued with a visa, despite being a senior ICC board member. The fact that Mugabe has been patron of Zimbabwe Cricket since 1992 has also done little to help the team’s international image. Bvute refuses to take blame for the close link with the Zimbabwean dictator and took a swipe at the exclusion of Chingoka from the meeting in Perth.

”It is sad that a largely white board, led by David Ellman-Brown, head-hunted and appointed President Mugabe as patron of the sport in 1992, but Chingoka and I continue to be politicised for their decision,” said Bvute.

Fortunately, the Zimbabwe Cricket administrator can be thankful for the exit of Arendse from the sport in South Africa and the arrival of Nyoka. The new CSA boss is on record saying that Zimbabwe’s cricket problems should not be politicised. He said that if political considerations were placed on the sport, some of the big Asian nations would also be excluded. Although he may not name them, Sri Lanka and Pakistan quickly come to mind.

Indeed, the developments concerning the sport in Zimbabwe raise many questions. Does India support Zimbabwe to guarantee an extra ICC vote? Should South Africa assist its troubled neighbour? Are the political reasons advanced by the likes of Australia and England — and Arendse for that matter — to exclude Zimbabwe from Test cricket justified?

What is perhaps a more important question is whether Zimbabwe is worthy of being part of the exclusive club of countries that play in the longer version of the game right now.

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