Bright Flower displays his varieties

Stephen Brenkley finds Zimbabwe's versatile captain keeping the faith
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The Independent Online

The combination of captaincy, top-order batting and wicketkeeping has always been a delicate juggling act in which at least two of the balls, or probably all of them, are in permanent danger of hitting the ground. Keep them up and you are likely to have a master of prestidigitation as well as a cricketer and a half.

The combination of captaincy, top-order batting and wicketkeeping has always been a delicate juggling act in which at least two of the balls, or probably all of them, are in permanent danger of hitting the ground. Keep them up and you are likely to have a master of prestidigitation as well as a cricketer and a half.

Only one man in the world is attempting to perform the three separate functions at present. So far, so good for Andy Flower of Zimbabwe. He is playing a prominent role at present in leading his side to the verge of the final in the one-day triangular series in South Africa.

If Zimbabwe can beat either the hosts today, as they did in both the World Cup last summer and in a nerve-tingling group match last week, or England on Wednesday, as they have made a routine habit of doing for seven years, they will be all but assured of a place.

When they arrived here with 10 defeats from their previous 12 matches, nobody gave them a prayer. Flower, who has already had the captaincy once and given it up, looks to be in for a long tenure.

"It is very hard to do," he said. "It's not the batting but the wicketkeeping. Being captain makes it extremely difficult to maintain the standard required at this level behind the stumps. I wasn't exactly reluctant to do it again, but when Alistair Campbell gave it up only three days before a Test match against South Africa last year I was hesitant about it. Unfortunately, there is nobody coming through yet as a keeper back home."

Perhaps Flower had in mind the catch, albeit well to his right, he had dropped off Lance Klus-ener in the match against South Africa last Wednesday. It was tricky but pouchable, and maybe the captain-keeper-batsman was musing at the time on whether it was best to have two men at deep midwicket for Klusener or one.

Still, Zimbabwe went on to win by two wickets from the last ball. Flower made 59 in his scurrying, chin-out style. No sign there of debilitation caused by doing three jobs, though his batting average in 37 matches as captain is only 24. In all matches it is 32.

Flower has played in 130 of Zimbabwe's 142 one-dayers, a phenomenal record. Since he is only 31 and his country, like the rest, shows no sign of weariness with the one-day affair, a total of well above 300 is possible.

Zimbabwe have won only 38 of their games but they continue to confound most assessments of their ability. Individually, they are not especially talented but the collective is strong.

"There are two reasons we might not be quite able to match other countries," said Flower. "The number of players we have to choose from in Zimbabwe is very low, and the standard of our domestic cricket isn't that high. It means that players have to learn a lot while actually playing internationals. They probably get longer with us than other countries' players do, but we do have youngsters coming through and there are a few up-and-coming black players."

The truly remarkable aspect of Zimbabwean cricket, of course, is not that they play it reasonably well but that they play it at all. The country, where a general election is to be held next month, is in a state of economic disarray. The fight for survival takes precedence over the fight for a place in the team.

It has been suggested that England may withdraw from their trip there later this month because of the country's uncertain state. But they seem determined to go after being rel- uctant, sometimes rude, guests there four years ago. The visit, if only for four one-day matches, could repair many bridges.

Zimbabwe have the nucleus of a sound, if unthrilling, side whose members know their jobs. "We seem to have been together a long time," said Flower, "but I'm the oldest at 31. We can reach this final. England are showing a bit more spirit than they have for a couple of years but South Africa are looking more vulnerable than they have for a while."

Cricket might need a strong England, but it also needs the Zimbabweans to be strong too, the team and their blooming prestidigitator.

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