Before Zimbabwe opened their tour of Sri Lanka, their former fast bowler and current coach Heath Streak sounded optimistic while speaking to the media. “I certainly think that the team we've got here has got the ability to win against any side," he said. "We had some good preparation coming into the series and I am looking forward to a lot of guys who can pull around. The future of Zimbabwe cricket is brighter if we keep doing the right things."
Following three weeks of tough battle against a disturbed Sri Lankan unit post their early exit from the Champions Trophy which preceded the resignation of their coach Graham Ford, Streak and his wards have reminded the world of the tremendous potential that Zimbabwe and its cricketers possess. It all began with a combination of a fearless display of big hitting and a composed middle-overs striking in the first ODI at Galle. The bowlers conceded 316 and Zimbabwe stared at yet another hefty defeat at 46/2.
But opener Solomon Mire and number four Sean Williams then joined hands for a match-defining stand of 161, in which they batted with purpose and responsibility. Mire struck his maiden one-day ton and Williams supported him beautifully before Sikandar Raza and Malcolm Waller completed the mopping up job by staging an unbeaten partnership of 102.
The maturity of the pair hurt Sri Lanka throughout, as both dealt in singles and twos when needed and took calculated risks with boundaries. That not only ensured Zimbabwe completed a first win against the hosts in their own backyard but also recorded the highest successful run chase in the country.
Inconsistency crept in again, as the visitors were thrashed in the next two games. With two matches to go, Graeme Cremer and his boys encountered a must-win situation in the fourth game, but they answered the call – and how! Yet again in pursuit of a total in excess of 300, Zimbabwe threatened to overhaul the target with firmness at the crease and intent in their minds.
Mire contributed handsomely once more with a breezy 43 with Tarisai Musakanda chipping in with a rapid cameo of 30. Though the match ran the risk of being abandoned by rain, the tourists managed to easily eclipse the 20-over DLS target before bad weather stalled play an over later, with Zimbabwe, at 139/3, nine ahead of the DLS par score, courtesy of the early hammering by the top order.
But play resumed with the innings curtailed to 31 overs and the target shortened to 219. With another 80 required in 10 overs, Craig Ervine returned to the field with renewed energy. Enjoying the medium-pace of Asela Gunaratne in particular, Ervine punished the bowlers with fascinating stroke play, the best of those was his only six off the back foot over the same bowler’s head.
The left-hander utilised leg side balls fully well to dispatch timely boundaries and ended up with eight fours in an undefeated, match-winning innings of 69 from merely 55 deliveries.
The series was levelled, which led to the host captain Angelo Mathews going as far as confessing that he was unsure of leading his country in the 2019 World Cup. "I don't know if I will be going to the 2019 World Cup as captain," Mathews had said, as he and his teammates felt the heat from the number 11 ODI team in the world.
Come the decider, Mathews suffered another loss as Sri Lanka barely managed to post 203 on a slow, spinning track. Zimbabwe’s quartet of spinners choked the hosts’ innings with accurate, skilful bowling and the loss of too many wickets early meant the bowlers always held the momentum. Seeing the slowness of the track, Cremer opened the bowling with part-timer Raza and the move paid off. The leg-spinner bowled 10 miserly overs for 3/21 and later made 27* vital runs in a successful yet nervous run chase.
Zimbabwe scripted history to win 3-2. Statistics were rewritten and records tumbled as Zimbabwe won a bilateral ODI series away from home for the first time since 2001. Mathews could not take all this and predictably, resigned as captain a day after calling the series defeat “one of the lowest points in my career”.
But the statistics, records and Mathews’ renouncement were not what Zimbabwe were playing for. Rather, they were competing and fighting to show the talent prevalent in their country which got wasted – and perfectly consumed by other nations – out of a dearth of international cricket that Zimbabwe played.
Upon landing in the island nation, coach Streak had rued the lack of opportunities his side got at the highest level.
“If you look around the world, and look at Zimbabweans internationally, we've got the likes of Gary Ballance, the Curran boys Sam and Tom, who just debuted for England, and Kyle Jarvis playing county cricket successfully,” Streak regretted. “We've got a lot of these guys out there whom we are trying to lure back. Part of their problem is the volume of cricket that Zimbabwe plays. That's something that we can't address, obviously.”
Streak missed mentioning the premature retirement of a highly rated Tatenda Taibu – he captained his country after Streak resigned but then sought to become a priest aged 29 only to be the incumbent chief selector – and the mesmerising Kolpak deal in county cricket which took away another wicket-keeper Brendan Taylor post the 2015 World Cup.
Though Streak and skipper Cremer would be proud upon clinching a first bilateral ODI series away from home since 2009 following woeful recent form against Scotland and Afghanistan, what would have been a cause for concern was not only the fact that this was Zimbabwe’s only twelfth series since their readmission to Test cricket in 2011, but also that six out of those twelve competitions featured only a single Test. Hence, Streak’s worries are justified.
Their happiest moments in the longest format during these six years though came when they first won a Test in Bangladesh in 2013 and then toppled Pakistan at home five months later to share both two-match series 1-1. Another memorable day of joy was at their doorstep only for poor umpiring and horrible wicket-keeping to snatch it away.
In their only Test of the Sri Lanka tour, with valiant centuries from Ervine and Raza, and the tireless efforts of Cremer, who bowled 87.3 overs for match figures of 9/275, they managed to drag Sri Lanka all the way, only for drama regarding technology to resurface.
Zimbabwe set them 388 in Colombo (RPS), but fell short on the final day as the hosts edged past by four wickets. Niroshan Dickwella, who eventually fell for 81, should have long walked back but for his reprieves.
With all the facilities available to him, third umpire C Shamshuddin still made a major blunder, which went a long way in sealing the fate of the match. While on 37, with the bails dislodged by wicket-keeper Regis Chakabva and neither the crease visible behind Dickwella’s boot nor the boot behind it, astonishingly, the decision went in favour of the batsman.
Chakabva then twice killed the tourists’ hopes of turning the tables on Sri Lanka when he dropped Dickwella on 63 and missed out on an opportunity to stump Gunaratne on 54, who remained unbeaten on 80 to see his team through in a tense chase.
Zimbabwe were nearly there, but all their endeavour amounted to nothing as Sri Lanka gunned down the fifth highest run chase in Test cricket and the highest in Asia. But that cannot prevent the spirited Zimbabweans from taking the flight back home as a happy unit.
First, from being 1-2 down in the ODIs, they beat Sri Lanka 3-2. Second, they managed to squeeze a ten-run first innings lead in the Test as Cremer took five despite strong resistance from the opposition. Third, from being 59/5 in the second innings, they never put themselves under pressure and posted 377, courageously tackling the menace of the magical Rangana Herath. And last, but not the least, gave themselves a solid chance of winning both the series on the tour.
At the end of it all, a pleased yet unsatisfied Cremer spoke of his team with pride. “I am proud of the way the guys played and the way they fought. I'm very proud of the way the guys played to win an ODI series here. Then push them in the Test match and almost beat them, and into the fifth afternoon - it's a good effort from our boys."
But again, he expressed disappointment realising that Zimbabwe remain free from any assignment until the West Indies arrive for two Tests – thankfully, not one – in October. “We're confident of pushing them because we're playing in Zimbabwe,” said the positive skipper.
For Streak, Cremer and the rest of the team, their performance on this tour may help act as a catalyst and wake the ICC up in scheduling more cricket for Zimbabwe; and the future of Zimbabwe cricket certainly looks “bright” – exactly what Streak wanted before the tour commenced – as they have started doing the “right things”.
Also read: Sikandar Raza finally becomes the hero