Largely unnoticed by their brethren in the international cricket community, Zimbabwe have slipped back into the Test arena after a self-imposed ban of six years. The ban might have come anyway, because of the impossibility of institutional operations under Robert Mugabe's tyranny.
But their exile was keenly felt, and events of the past few days offer mixed clues to whether Zimbabwe can again become a competitive Test-playing nation.
Zimbabwe's has been a remarkable evolution. When Dave Houghton led a bunch of amateurs on to the field against India in Harare in 1992-3, spectators everywhere expected a spanking. It didn't come. Instead, the minnows established a first-innings lead and only failed to secure victory because of a superb century by Sanjay Manjrekar. As Liam Brickhill of espncricinfo.com noted this week, in that Test Houghton became the first player to score a century on his country's debut since Kent-born Charles Bannerman hit 165 for the Australians against England in Melbourne in 1877.
By the late 1990s, the Zimbabweans had several very talented players, including the Flower, Strang, and Whittall brothers, Heath Streak and Murray Goodwin. But the retirement of those players coincided with a decline in fortunes. In 2005, they were thumped inside two days by South Africa and New Zealand, then embarrassed by India. Tatenda Taibu, the diminutive and loquacious wicketkeeper from Harare, described that first day against South Africa at Newlands as "the worst day since I started playing for Zimbabwe".
Unfortunately, the players have still not received their fees for the World Cup. Nor have they been paid for the past 12 months or signed contracts for this match. That is why Taibu, who follows Sydney Barnes, Bishen Bedi and Warwick Armstrong in demanding better deals for players, was at it again.
"I don't think much has changed really," he said. "When you walk around and you see a house that's painted well you will think that house is really standing strong. But if it does not have a strong foundation, it will fall down one day or another. Zimbabwe Cricket [the new governing body] has just painted a house that's about to fall."
His ire was mainly directed at the chairman of selectors, Alistair Campbell, who described the comments as a "slap in the face" and promised that he would "have it out" with the player. But then a funny thing happened. Campbell and ZC Managing Director Ovais Bvute issued a statement saying they could tolerate such dissent, and "wish him [Taibu] the very best in the Test match. He is one of our finest cricketers". Their maturity was a pleasant surprise.
Zimbabwe's players still live in the shadow of a despot, have scarce resources to work with and a weak domestic competition. But if the players work hard, Zimbabwe's six-year hiatus may come to be seen as a glorious pupation.