Flower the heart of Africa

NatWest Series: Zimbabwe's cultured leader keeps underdogs snapping back

These Zimbabweans have been wonderful tourists. They have competed ferociously against a backdrop of terrible strife in their country, a damaging dispute in their camp and a gruesome early defeat which might have finished them.

These Zimbabweans have been wonderful tourists. They have competed ferociously against a backdrop of terrible strife in their country, a damaging dispute in their camp and a gruesome early defeat which might have finished them.

It is a huge affirmation of their characters as individuals and as a team that they have overcome these matters and on Saturday will play in the final of the inaugural NatWest Series at Lord's. Whoever the opposition are, Zimbabwe will start as underdogs, which is a long way from suggesting they should be underestimated.

"Winning would be the biggest thing to happen to the sport in Zimbabwe," said Andy Flower, their estimable captain. "Certainly since we won our first Test. This is a triangular competition against two of the big nations, away from home. It has already provoked interest at home, we've had a string of faxes and e-mails."

Flower is a candid, engaging and thoughtful man who recognises precisely Zimbabwe's place in the cricketing scheme of things. "We are the worst of the Test-playing nations, we know that," he said seriously. "Though I suppose Bangladesh are in it now," he suddenly remembered, brightening.

It is to the eternal discredit of the England and Wales Cricket Board that this is Zimbabwe's first proper visit, eight years after they were embraced as members of the Test family. Not even now has it been attended by buttons and bows.

Flower reassumed the captaincy last autumn when Alistair Campbell resigned over- night, tired of the personal abuse he was receiving in the Zimbabwean press and suffering a desperate run of form. It was not exactly the most willing of successions. Flower had the job before but found the combination of wicketkeeping, opening the batting (in Tests) and leadership too much.

"I thought long and hard about it because there's no doubt that it is hard," he said. "It affects the keeping rather than the batting, but once I'd made the decision that was it. If I was to do it I would throw myself into it. This will be the last time I'm captain."

Flower's tenure has coincided with the worsening polit-ical climate at home and burgeoning grievance in the team at their pay. Both have a had a profound effect. Cricket, who could care about cricket?

"The most unsettling thing about what is happening, other than people dying - and that is of course the worst thing about this episode - is that people don't know if there will be a future for them in their own country. Most of us were born there, and the fact that we might not have a future of any kind there is quite a worry when you're away. But all hope is not lost. It is a great country and the situation could still be turned round very quickly."

There was another issue which threatened the mood of this touring party. Discontent over their wages reached new heights. "This hasn't just happened. It has been a bone of contention for eight years, since players started to play professionally," said Flower. "This is our living, we depend on it and we have long been unhappy about our pay. Nobody wants to make fortunes but we must be able to live comfortably. It's bound to be distracting when people are constantly thinking about money."

To a man, it seems the players are all earning less, probably much less, than they would in civilian life. Their grievances were simply not addressed by their board. An arbitration panel has been set up which Flower seems optimistic will result in improved money.

But the dispute unquestionably affected the Zimbabweans. Flower was so upset at the intransigence of the authorities that he did no wicketkeeping practice worth mentioning before the First Test. It showed, and he knows it.

His team were affected too. The wages wrangle, the awesome prospect of playing in a Test at Lord's for the first time and a thoroughly efficient England performance led to a hammering. Zimbabwe knew they had to come back. They did, starting at Trent Bridge in the next Test, when England, whether they knew it or not, took them too lightly.

On the last day, Flower had the temerity to declare against all odds, a move which nearly helped to set the stage for an unlikely victory. It demonstrated in an instant that this Zimbabwe side might be full or journeyman cricketers but are not afraid to be bold.

Since then they have kept on improving, building up form quietly around the shires and peaking perfectly for the one-day series. Flower will not comment on the opposition, but it is easy to infer that he feels England have tended to patronise Zimbabwe.

He agrees with the notion that sportsmen approach games differently in the southern hemisphere. In Australia he was astonished at the positive way they approached cricket. "That was true of the Test team, state teams, up- country sides. They all did. It's something to do with having no fear." English teams, we know, have fear all right. But the Zimbabweans learned lessons in Australia to last them a cricketing lifetime. They return there this winter for a one-day series and will need to remember every point if they are to get anywhere.

Flower and his brother, Grant, were encouraged to play as boys by their cricket-daft dad. But club cricket was probably the limit of their aspirations until Zimbabwe's elevation. Flower's career as an accountant was abandoned.

He has taken completely to international cricket. He is, in every sense, a fully functioning batsman, who averages 40 in Tests and is a busy accumulator in the one-day game. He is, Lord's apart, where he dropped catch after catch, a solid, unfussy wicketkeeper who stands up well to his team's array of slow bowlers.

Flower is married to an English girl whom he met on his first visit here 12 years ago, when he decided to jack in the accountancy. His wife is in England, staying with her parents, attending the odd match. But Flower is a Zimbo through and through. He is proud of the country, frustrated at the terrible events there, sees a great future for the cricket team. He plays for Old Winstonians, a club for black cricketers. The potential is enormous. The black population has embraced the game and Flower tells stories of impromptu games in the streets of Harare and on farms in the country.

That is their future but young players need not only coaching but equipment. It is clear that the international players are not sure that their board have always performed their duties as assiduously as would be desirable.

But their team of journeymen ("Every player has a role to play," insists Flower, "some may get more runs but others bring aggression or spirit or fielding ability, they all count") have done their country proud. Watch out for them at Lord's.

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