Zimbabwe have had a year of T20Is in 2016    AFP
Zimbabwe have had a year of T20Is in 2016 AFP

Fawkes is a phoenix, Harry. Phoenixes burst into flame when it is time for them to die and are reborn from the ashes, were the exact words Dumbledore had used to describe Fawkes, his phoenix, to a 12-year-old Harry in Chamber of Secrets. Imagine the spectacle: a bird, majestic in every sense of the words, going up in flames to meet a gruesome end, only to be reborn in the same avatar as before. Team Zimbabwe reminds me of a phoenix. A bunch of boys in red and yellow, reminding of the faded glory of ancestors and building hopes for a better future.

There is a tradition of handing the captaincy to the most consistent player of a side. Zimbabwe took it too seriously. As a result, they had three different captains in a calendar year despite their limited exposure to international cricket. They entered 2016 with Elton Chigumbura leading the side; handed the command to an in-form Hamilton Masakadza; and settled for Graeme Cremer towards the end of the year.

Zimbabwe s year started with a win against Afghanistan, the team that would remain a thorn in their flesh as the year would progress. Afghanistan had already won the first 2 ODIs and Zimbabwe s victory in the third ODI at Sharjah was an excellent fightback. Players like Chamu Chibhabha, Masakadza, Neville Madziva, Tendai Chisoro and Luke Jongwe helped the team level the series 2-2, but it ended in favour of Afghanistan in their adopted home. Nevertheless, it was a commendable neck-to-neck fight in foreign land. The T20I series that followed went totally in favour of the hosts. While they put up a good fight in the first match, Afghanistan dominated in the second thoroughly.

The Walton T20 series, just before ICC World T20, was one of the biggest positives for Zimbabwe in 2016. The year remained more or less a year of T20 cricket for Zimbabwe, and it all started with the mental boost they got in Bangladesh. The hosts were on a high after fruitful series against nations like Pakistan, India and South Africa at home in 2015. They obviously started the series against Zimbabwe with the same spirit. It was no surprise that Bangladesh won the first 2 T20Is before Zimbabwe made a comeback, winning the last 2.

Vusi Sibanda and Masakadza (again) tried their best to give Zimbabwe the start they needed to win the opener. A 101-run opening stand in 12 overs is just what a team needs for a winning target in T20Is. But the middle- and lower-orders failed to maintain the momentum, and Zimbabwe managed only 163 for 7; Bangladesh chased it down with 1.2 overs remaining.

The third T20I of the series was memorable for Zimbabwe in many ways. It was their comeback into the game, that too on foreign soil and the match that helped them discover their go-to man in the subcontinent Cremer. While 187 is a challenging total in any T20 match, Bangladesh did not seem to be affected by the psychological pressure the numbers should have created. Sabbir Rahman made sure his team was on course before being stopped by Sikandar Raza, while Cremer took care of big guns Soumya Sarkar, Shakib Al Hasan and Mahmudullah. Zimbabwe won by 31 runs.

Masakadza was the star of the series to the surprise of no one. His 93 not out is still the highest in T20Is by any Zimbabwe cricketer. They put up 180, and even Mahmudullah s half-century could not save the hosts from an 18-run defeat. Madziva picked up 4 wickets while Chisoro bagged 3; both were playing their first matches in Bangladesh.

Zimbabwe were heading towards a big tournament. ICC World T20 was their platform to compete with the top-ranked nations. Before that, Zimbabwe decided to make a big change. Zimbabwe wanted a new captain to replace Chigumbura, who looked off colour. They tried with Tendai Chatara first, against West Indies at Sharjah. They lost the series 0-2 and there was no reason to persist with him. They went for the safe option, handing the command to Masakadza, the most consistent performer.

Zimbabwe s World T20 campaign started with two warm-up matches. They lost the first against Himachal Pradesh Cricket Association XI but surprised everyone by winning the following fixture against Ireland. Masakadza scored an unbeaten 68 and they seemed set to go.

The first hurdle in Zimbabwe s run was to end as table-toppers of their Group in First Round. Hong Kong and Scotland were easy opponents. However, they lost to their nemesis Afghanistan by 59 runs and failed to qualify to the Super 10.

Zimbabwe next played international cricket when India toured Zimbabwe a couple of months later. It was a limited-overs series with 3 ODIs and 3 T20Is. India sent a second-string team under MS Dhoni. While the ODI series was a one-sided affair, the T20I series was a highlight for Zimbabwe in 2016. Meanwhile, Zimbabwe had made yet another change. While Cremer was given the command, Dav Whatmore was sacked and Makhaya Ntini was announced the interim coach.

The decision was a shocker. It was similar to the decision of sacking Chigumbura few days back, once again for no apparent reason. Though Chigumbura was not performing as before, his captaincy never seemed to have been affected. Masakadza s performance in the World T20 was struck by bad luck as he was part of two terrible run outs, the second of which can be safely called an act of God. As we have seen many times in the past, captaincy is not something that entirely depends upon the individual s performance.

Abrupt sackings are, of course, no news to Zimbabwe cricket. Whatmore was brought following the dismissal of Stephen Mangongo. Whatmore had later revealed that the decisions taken by the then committee were taken all by themselves rather than going through the proper committees .

They’re making arbitrary decisions, as people sitting around a table who know nothing about the game. Also, you’ve got to have a structure that has a pathway through which players can perform and then get promoted and then play meaningful competition and get promoted again, and so on. It’s non-existent in Zimbabwe. There is no clear pathway. Or no good pathway anyway. Four [franchise] teams? I mean bloody hell. And they play each other twice, so that’s six games a year, and that’s it. Some players are just playing the odd game a year because there’s no second team. Internationals come back into franchise teams and then your franchise guys are just carrying water. It is really a dereliction of duty for the game,” he told ESPNCricinfo.

However, the Zimbabwe players did a commendable job. They consumed very little time to adapt to the changing command and coaching stuff and bounced back in the T20I series against India, winning the first one and taking the lead. The win was a brilliant one, with Madziva bowling excellent yorkers to prevent Dhoni from scoring 7 off the last 4 balls.

The third T20I was a close call as well. India had won the second one and squared the series. It was a must-win for the heavyweights and the hosts had put them under enough pressure, restricting them for 138. Donald Tiripano s 3 for 20 had done it with the ball and it was time for the batsmen to end things. But things did not fall in place. None of the batsmen managed to survive, and Zimbabwe lost the match by 3 runs. Nevertheless, keeping India under pressure must have boosted the confidence of new captain Cremer and the team.

After two years of absence from Test cricket, Zimbabwe were all set to face New Zealand at home. Winning did not seem to be as important as was the opportunity of playing in whites against a team that plays Tests regularly. The results, as expected, went in favour of the visitors as they won the first match by an innings and 117 runs and the second by 254 runs.

 

But there were performances that caught the eyes of cricket-lovers. It started with an 85-run partnership for the ninth wicket between Donald Tiripano (49*) and debutant Prince Masvaure (42) that took the score from 72 for 8 to 157 for 9. Then followed a 119-run knock from No. 6 Sean Williams in the next innings. It was his maiden Test ton and was an inspirational one for sure, though it did not help much in turning the result.

Opener Chibhabha scored 60 in the next match, while Craig Ervine, who had scored a 50 in the last match, showed consistency, scoring 146. Peter Moor, batting at No. 7, scored a commendable 71. All positives for Zimbabwe despite the series loss.

Zimbabwe played 2 more Tests later the year in November, against Sri Lanka at home. Sri Lanka Cricket rested skipper Angelo Mathews and deputy Dinesh Chandimal, making veteran Rangana Herath the skipper for the first time in his career. Cremer remained unnerved, performing both with bat and ball. He scored his maiden Test ton while remaining among the consistent wicket-takers. After the 4 Tests, Zimbabwe found Williams, Cremer and Ervine their heroes in whites.

Up next was a tri-nation series with Sri Lanka and West Indies that went by the extremely unimaginative name of Zimbabwe Tri-Series. It was a good break from Test cricket and a chance to play more of competitive cricket for the hosts.

Zimbabwe started off poorly, by losing their first match to Sri Lanka. However, their next with West Indies ended in a nail-biting tie. Ervine and Raza performed again and helped the team post 257. They were sloppy on field, and gave away too many runs but managed not to lose.

The next match bore no result, being called off due to rain while the hosts won their second with West Indies by Duckworth-Lewis method, which took them to the final of the tournament to face Sri Lanka again. Marked as underdogs, it was no less than an achievement for Zimbabwe, though Sri Lanka eventually won the series. That was Zimbabwe s last cricketing action at international level in 2016.

To most, their achievements (if they qualify as achievements) may not come off as exceptional. However, looking from Zimbabwe s point of view, it was a phenomenal year loaded with positivity and possibilities. Fans of Zimbabwe cricket will hope these will invite more progressive cricket for the team, one that had once made their mark in world cricket with consistent performances. The former cricketers must join hand, as Zimbabwe need positive expert advice from the experienced men: going by the trend, it is clear that the new bunch has a lot of intent.

May the phoenix rise again from the ashes.