New boys anxious to make up for lost time

Zimbabwe must be taken seriously, says Henry Blofeld in Bulawayo
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The Independent Online
In all the kerfuffle over England's seemingly inexplicable start to their tour of Zimbabwe, the shortcomings of Mike Atherton's side have been unendingly and embarrassingly analysed and dissected. At the same time, Zimbabwe seem to have been dismissed in almost patronising terms.

Zimbabwe are the newest recruits to Test cricket and, just like Sri Lanka before them, it has taken them time to find their feet at this level. Unsurprisingly, like Sri Lanka too, they have prospered more in the one- day game than in Test matches. They have for some time been a force in limited-overs cricket. In the World Cup in England in 1984, for example, they beat Australia convincingly at Trent Bridge, and came close to beating India at Tunbridge Wells.

It is no secret that England voted against Zimbabwe's elevation to Test status in 1991, which underlines the irony of the present situation. There was a feeling in world cricket, however, that if Zimbabwe were not then made full members of the International Cricket Council the game there might easily have withered and died.

It was a sort of last-chance saloon for them, therefore, but how well they have grasped this opportunity. The game flourishes although it is still very much a minority sport and is largely an elitist, white man's game. Apart from Henry Olonga, the fast bowler who is almost certain to play, the side for the first Test will be made up entirely of white players.

However, the next generation who are now at school are increasingly having the opportunity to play and, by all accounts, are jumping at the chance. If the West Indian example is anything to go by, as it surely must be, the composition of Zimbabwean sides in 10 years or so should be very different.

In the meantime, cricket in Zimbabwe, in spite of its limited recruitment base, prospers and undoubtedly the lure of international cricket has been one of the reasons. No one present at the Queen's Club on Sunday could have failed to have been impressed by the efficiency of their side, even if their batting faltered near the end.

Yet these players continue to be referred to patronisingly as "only" part-timers. Eddo Brandes is indeed a chicken farmer, Andy Waller a tobacco farmer, and Guy Whittall a big game hunter. This has been stressed to suggest they spend more of their time in gumboots with forks or guns in their hands than they do on the cricket field. That way, England's humiliation sounds the more dreadful.

But the fact is that this Zimbabwean side is an extremely professional outfit, not a collection of part timers, and they are about to take Zimbabwe into their first Test Match against England, shamefully delayed by the old TCCB, with a real chance of victory. They must not be under-estimated.