Zimbabwe make up for lost time : CRICKET

Douglas Rogers believes his country should have had their Test chance years ago
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TWO months ago an assortment of tomato farmers, big-game hunters, a sales rep, four full-time cricketers and a student beat England's 11 professionals in a one-day match. The result was an embarrassment for England. They had lost to Zimbabwe, but it might just as well have been Uganda for all the scorn poured on them. Earlier this month, virtually the same Zimbabwe side, with the significant addition of a black teenager just out of high school, thrashed Pakistan, one of the best Test teams in the world. No doubt they were blushing from Karachi to Lahore.

Call them what you will, part-timers, no-hopers, or whipping-boys, but in a mere two years and two months Zimbabwe have proved themselves worthy additions to Test cricket. The tragedy is that they could have proved their worth eight years ago but were never given the chance.

It is no secret that the Test and County Cricket Board stood alone in opposing Zimbabwe's elevation to Test status in 1992, citing the need to "protect standards". What is less well known is that in 1987, when Zimbabwe had a far stronger side than that which beat Pakistan, the TCCB and the Australian Cricket Board opposed their elevation to the grand stage.

Alwyn Pichanick, then president of the Zimbabwe Cricket Union, remembers the ICC meeting: "It was a chicken-and- egg situation. They were saying we were not good enough, we were saying you only become good enough if you are given the chance. Even the West Indies had to start somewhere."

The lost five years were crucial, for they tore apart the core of what was arguably Zimbabwe's finest-ever team which had won the ICC trophy and beaten Australia in the 1983 World Cup. A batting prodigy called Graeme Hick had appeared; Dave Houghton, a brilliant wicketkeeper batsman, and Kevin Curran, a combative all-rounder, were in their prime. Peter Rawson was an inspirational fast bowler and John Traicos was a world-class off-spinner who had played Test cricket for South Africa against Australia in 1970.

Limited to playing "young" or "A" sides from the Test nations, Zimbabwe had a remarkable record in the early Eighties. At one stage they won 15 consecutive one-day matches and had first-class wins over powerful Australian and Indian development teams that included David Boon, Dean Jones, Steve Waugh, Mohammed Azharrudin, Manoj Prabhakar and Ravi Shastri.

That was precisely the time that Zimbabwe needed - and deserved - the adrenalin jolt of Test competitions. They were denied it, with tragic consequences.

"We were set back several years," recalled Traicos, who was captain at the time. Hick, the home-grown boy wonder, chose to qualify for England, Curran moved on, forfeiting his Zimbabwean passport to play county cricket and Rawson left to play in South Africa, where he captained Natal.

"We had been playing and beating many of these development sides whose players were going on to become the new Test stars, and yet we were getting nowhere," Traicos added.

Of course there were other reasons for being turned down in 1987. There was the fear that Zimbabwe would not draw large crowds, that they lacked depth in first-class internal competition and that there was a dearth of young players. Yet the rejection did nothing to solve these problems. Only a third successive ICC Trophy win in 1990 kept the game alive, for it meant participation in the next World Cup and revenue for a development programme back home.

In the historic Pakistan win, the 18-year-old fast bowler Henry Olonga became Zimbabwe's first black Test player. His selection could hardly have been more symbolic. He took a wicket with his third ball and helped attract the largest number of black supporters to a match in Zimbabwe.

Such a sudden influx of young players only two years after Test recognition is hardly coincidental. The side that beat Pakistan had an average age of 25, almost certainly the youngest Test team in the world. Olonga is 18, the fast bowler Heath Streak only 20, and of the three centurions in the First Test, the captain Andy Flower is the oldest at 26.

It took New Zealand 26 years to win their first Test; it has taken Zimbabwe 26 months. And if the ancient powers of world cricket had a more foresight, they would have done it years ago.

The writer played for Zimbabwe B in the late 1980s.