Flower hopes Zimbabwe can lift morale

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The Independent Online

The racial and political turmoil that has recently engulfed Zimbabwe has not prevented their cricket tour of England, which starts with a match against Hampshire on Thursday. But while the President, Robert Mugabe, is doing his best to rubbish everything from the country's colonial past, Andy Flower, the captain of the team, feels that the game brought to that part of Africa by early settlers, could help raise morale in all quarters.

"When we did well in the World Cup, we got a lot of feedback from people back home about how it affected the mood of the nation," said Flower at Lord's yesterday. "I'd love for us to do well over here and have the same effect again."

As captain, wicketkeeper and one of the side's leading batsmen, Flower has enough on his plate without having to keep a constant eye on the news. Keeping morale high when real danger lurks, and while families and loved ones are thousands of miles away, is way beyond the remit of other Test captains, but Flower is determined to try.

It may help that most of his team are townies with property as yet unaffected by the armed mobs, though four, including his best bowler Heath Streak, come from farming stock. In fact, Streak has yet to join the team, his father and mother having fled their farm to the north of Bulawayo, after a neighbour was shot last week.

"The situation at home is not ideal, but we are here to tour England, do well, and enjoy it," said Flower. "I don't think that the additional pressure will affect our on-field performances. At this level, you should be able to refocus and compartmentalise so that it doesn't affect you."

The tour manager, Dan Stannard, continued the mantra. "It is very important that this tour takes place for cricket in Zimbabwe," he said. "At this moment in time, there are no thoughts about going back. This tour has never been in doubt and I can't see any circumstances in which it would be."

It is probably naïve, but it would be good to think that cricket's ability to cheer, might be enhanced back in Zimbabwe's towns and veldtland if the four black players on tour were to excel. Mind you, with the 17-year old wicketkeeper, Tatenda Taibu, brought as an understudy to Flower, and Mluleki Nkala, largely untried at this level, only two, Henry Olonga and Mpumelelo Mabangwa, are likely to play a significant part.

Olonga, the opera-singing fast bowler, is already well known. When on song, rather than in voice, he can destroy sides as he did to England in a recent one-dayer in Cape Town. Unlike the taller and steadier Mbangwa, Olonga still lacks consistency. With the two Test series over by 5 June, the pitches will surely repay accuracy and an upright seam rather than out and out pace.

Flower believes such pitches are unlikely to suit his batsman, but his team are scrappers, whose three wins from 41 Tests, highlights a lack of experience, rather than ability.

Indeed, if some nerves had not overcome them in Trinidad a month ago, when they needed 99 in their second innings to win, the West Indies would have been added to that list. But if England know that, it is just a case of whether Flower and his team can remember the stumbling blocks over the coming weeks and avoid them. With the political situation at home, it will not be easy.

ZIMBABWE SQUAD (for tour of England): A Flower (capt); H H Streak (vice-capt); G W Flower; M W Goodwin; A D R Campbell; N Johnson; G J Whittall; T R Gripper; S V Carlisle; H K Olonga; M Nkala; B C Strang; M Mbangwa; D P Viljoen; G B Brent; T Taibu.