Cricket: Penney pleased by small change

Zimbabwe's player-coach scents success in this year's World Cup in England.
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I WOULDN'T be surprised if Zimbabwe do well in the World Cup," said Trevor Penney during the recent second Test match against the England A touring side. Being the player-coach of the Zimbabwean A team and a vital member of Warwickshire in the last few seasons, he is well placed to judge.

"Definitely, I think we could cause an upset or shock some countries who tend to think of us as easy pickings," he said.

"We've had two talented players return to Zimbabwe and this has made a huge difference to the quality of the side," said Penney, who was himself born in Zimbabwe. With three years left on a contract in England and a lucrative benefit in the offing, the 30-year-old Penney is, however, not likely to follow the example of Neil Johnson or Murray Goodwin and return to Zimbabwe.

"Murray was struggling to get a game in a strong Western Australian side so he decided to come back to Zimbabwe and Johnson has played in England for Leicestershire as well as in South Africa for Natal for a few seasons. He was also born in Zimbabwe so we're not poaching players but having our own natural talent return," Penney said.

"We only got Test status in 1992 so for the first few years we were bound to struggle, but I can see that the standard is improving and having players return is a great boost."

England certainly struggled in Zimbabwe two winters ago in the infamous "we flippin' murdered em" series but, watching the recent first Test between the A teams in Harare, it was difficult not to think that England looked the superior side.

Nine of the Zimbabwean side had played Test cricket but, with only eight clubs in the country and about 100 cricketers, it is unrealistic to expect them to have the strength in depth that county cricket affords the English. It is not the depth that counts as much as the top 13 or 14 and Zimbabwe are no longer weak. The Flower brothers, Grant and Andy, are excellent cricketers and Heath Streak spearheads the bowling attack with aggression and pace - but Penney realises there is a cutting edge missing.

"We struggle with everything to do with the quickies," he explained. " We have pretty slow and flat wickets in Zimbabwe so we don't develop the out and out quicks, or get used to facing them. We tend to produce medium-pace line and length bowlers, but that is another reason why I think we could do well in the World Cup. A damp May in England could suit us. Sometimes playing for Warwickshire I spend most of the first month playing and missing at four balls in six."

Penney believes that much of the improvement in Zimbabwean cricket has come since their southern neighbour, South Africa, invited them to enter a side into the Currie Bowl competition. It is in this cricket that Penney plays for Zimbabwe A as an overseas player.

"Playing against the South African provincial second teams has helped us greatly," he said. "It exposes us to lots of different players and has made our batsmen learn to face fast and aggressive bowling. Last year we came second, which proved that we were getting tougher in our attitudes and this year we are joint top with Eastern Province, who we go to play after this England tour. Without the South African help I admit we would struggle to develop as quickly as we have, because I think Zimbabwean cricket is as strong now as it has ever been."

And what about English cricket, with all the structural changes this coming season?

"I know it's been said before but we play too much cricket in England," Penney said. "There is no intensity about practice because players do the same thing every day for six months and they have to look after their bodies and nurse niggly injuries. I just feel that often there is a lack of fun when really we should be remembering that we play cricket for enjoyment, for fun - that is why we played as kids.

"The idea of two divisions is good but a transfer market worries me. If the authorities want to improve the standard then they should reduce the number of overs in a day. So often the last session is played in a rush to get the 104 overs bowled. Cut it back to 90 overs a day just like Test matches, allow players time to think and watch the quality improve as each over assumes greater importance. Pitches need to improve as well but the trick is to make every ball bowled as competitive as possible. It doesn't matter how and I can't confess to knowing the answers, so it will take experimentation, but good Test cricketers will only come from a healthy environment."

England were warned two winters ago of Zimbabwe's skill in the shortened game. May will tell how they have developed since then.