CRICKET: Zimbabweans add insult to England injuries

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The Independent Online
Zimbabwe 205

England 192

(Zimbabwe win by 13 runs)

Ah well, perhaps that game against Australia A was just a mirage after all. Zimbabwe, somewhat unsportingly, were allowed to field their first team against England here yesterday, and, to no one's great surprise, this proved to be far too much for Michael Atherton's plucky troops. Full marks, in fact, for keeping the margin down to a mere 13 runs.

Two years ago, Zimbabwe's successful application for Test status was opposed by England on the grounds that they were not ready for it, and they are doubtless already plotting their revenge in Harare. "Got Lord's on the phone. Want to know if they can come over for a five- match series." "Sorry, we're not sure anyone will want to buy any tickets. Tell them we've got a bit of a gap here in 2009, and we'll try and squeeze in a shared series with Papua New Guinea."

Ye gods. Zimbabwe have only ever won four one-day internationals in 42 attempts, yet against England they have a 100 per cent record. During their only previous meeting, in the 1991 World Cup, England's batsmen were seen off by a tubby chicken farmer by the name of Eddo Brandes, and yesterday they played Zimbabwe's spinners as though someone had suddenly turned off the SCG floodlights.

Graeme Hick made 64 against his native country, but was one of three run-outs as England comically fell apart in the final hour. Having spent most of his formative cricketing years qualifying for England, Hick might now be wondering whether he would havebeen better off staying where he was.

Atherton, who was only able to play after having a cortisone injection in his back, will shortly be seeking assistance from a shrink rather than a doctor, although he must have a remarkably long fuse to restrict his comments at the post-mortem to "very disappointed". The England captain said that he had instructed his team beforehand not to underestimate Zimbabwe, although the Zimabwean captain may have had the slightly tougher job in telling his own players not to take England too lightly.

One way of looking at it is that the World Series Cup is a long way from being England's serious objective on this tour, and that they did not select a team with the one-day competition in mind. However, so low has their self-esteem sunk since they arrived here, that defeats such as this cannot help but add to the deflationary effect only eight days before the second Test match gets under way in Melbourne.

England had threatened to leave the field here had they experienced any repetition of Tuesday night's missile throwing, but there was no danger of crowd trouble last night for the simple reason that there was no crowd. Whether this had any de-motivating effect, however, is scarcely relevant, and if they continue to play the way they are doing now, they will soon have all the experience they want of playing to empty stadiums.

They have, of course, been badly affected by illness and injuries, and after Alec Stewart had been forced to bat down the order yesterday because of a back spasm, the news came through that Joey Benjamin's chicken pox has now developed into shingles. When England finally head for home in February, they could make Napoleon's retreat from Moscow resemble a song and dance act.

There is even room for debate as to whether they were unlucky about the umpire declining to refer an appeal for a run-out against Zimbabwe's top scorer, Grant Flower, for TV adjudication. The replay showed that Flower would have been given out for 26 instead of batting through the innings for 84 not out, but it was such a desperate grind that his man of the match medal should only have been awarded had England won the game.

Zimbabwe were heading for a total of around 240 until Dave Houghton, their most experienced batsman, became one of Darren Gough's five victims, but Flower was then so unable to change gear that Zimbabwe managed only 34 runs in the final 10 overs. England, in fact, seemed determined to keep him in judging by the way they immediately withdrew their compulsory close field after the first 15 overs, although it was probably no more than the customary application of the stereotyped one-day manual.

Graham Gooch was lucky not to be given out lbw to the first ball of England's innings, but the old boy has been exploring any number of ludicrous ways to get out on this tour, and it was Gooch's dismissal in the 17th over of the innings that allowed Zimabwe to wrest the initiative.

Paul Strang is no more than a vaguely promising leg-spinner, but this type of bowling is currently guaranteed to have England hopping around in a total fog, and when Strang's first ball turned out to be a gentle full toss, Gooch promptly hit it straight back to him.

Three balls later, Graham Thorpe unaccountably missed a routine leg break, and England were suddenly paralysed into strokelessness. John Crawley made only 18 off 55 balls, but Hick and Alec Stewart then appeared to have rescued the game until Stewart slogged across a straight one.

The rest was pure farce. Phillip DeFreitas, who rarely keeps his head in a crisis, ran himself out, but even more ridiculous was the dummy Gough sold from the non-striker's end to run out Hick. Gough then compounded the felony by getting out immediately afterwards, and with England's last pair needing 14 off the final over, Shaun Udal was run out off the first ball.

"Let's all do the conga" chanted a group of England supporters as they cavorted around the near empty ground, before symbolically mirroring the team they have come to watch by collapsing in an innebriated heap.