Recalling Zim’s triumph

2014-08-23 00:00

WHENEVER the Proteas play Zimbabwe in an ODI match, the team ought to be reminded that it was their northern neighbours who were primarily responsible for knocking them out of the 1999 World Cup.

To be sure, Hershelle Gibbs’s careless dropped catch off Steve Waugh and the infamous run out in the semi-final played a part, but had they not lost against Zimbabwe earlier on, the Proteas, not Australia, would have gone through to the final after the tied semi-final on the basis that the South Africans had suffered fewer defeats in the earlier rounds.

It is interesting to recall that match from our memories for several reasons. Firstly, the Zimbabwean team were arguably the strongest that they have put onto any field ever since the days when that country ceased being known as Rhodesia. Secondly, the Zimbabweans contained just a single black player in their team. He was the fast bowler and baritone of note, Henry Olonga, whose eventual stand against the regime of Robert Mugabe saw him banned from cricket in that country, from which he ultimately fled in order to save his life.

Gibbs was the only South African in the team who had not been classified as white in the days of apartheid, but he had been educated at Bishops, the school that produced more Springboks than any other during those distant years. The current demographics of both teams are now much changed for different reasons, with very different consequences. The Proteas have benefited from the opportunities now available to everyone, whereas the Zimbabweans have suffered from the massive exodus that started when the Mugabe regime got stuck into the formerly Rhodesian whites. The best Zimbabwean cricketer today is Gary Ballance who has had a great summer for England and is the first of a new generation of Zimbabwe expatriates who might play cricket for another country.

In 1999, Zimbabwean cricket was not regarded as the basket case that it is today. Theirs was a formidable team who beat India in that World Cup and came close to upsetting the eventual winners, Australia. Hansie Cronje and his team, however, approached their match against Zimbabwe with the hubris of a team who regarded themselves as likely winners of the Cup.

South Africa arrived to play that match with their position assured at the top of their group. Nobody in the team was then aware of the small print in the competition’s rules that determined what would happen in the event of a tie in the semi-finals. For them, it was a game without consequence. For the Zimbabweans, it was a match they had to win to qualify for the next round. The Proteas took a casual approach that was markedly different from the Zimbabweans’ who were ready for a scrap.

Zimbabwe made a respectable, but not insurmountable, 233 from their 50 overs. A shower of rain delayed the start of the South African innings, which began with a shock when Gary Kirsten was out first ball. Gibbs was soon run out after a mix-up and Mark Boucher played an atrocious pull off a good length ball to be LBW. Kallis was then dismissed for a duck, Cronje bowled for four and Jonty Rhodes LBW for five. None of the first six batsmen dismissed reached double figures. At 40 for six the innings was in ruins and the match beyond recovery.

Even then the South Africans were unconcerned. It was only in the throes of that dreadful denouement at the Edgbaston semi-final that it dawned on them just how costly that Zimbabwean defeat had become.

Hubris had done them in. They had ignored the lessons that confront all teams and individuals when faced with lesser opponents that they ought to beat. They had not shown respect to the opposition and each player in the team had not taken personal responsibility to play his role in a match-winning performance. Everyone left the job to someone else and relied on the Zimbabweans to make the mistakes that never came. This costly defeat remains South Africa’s only loss to Zimbabwe.

Cricket in that country is still struggling to recover from years of trauma inflicted by the neglect of the ICC and the damage caused by the policies of a government determined to wreak revenge on a generation of whites for the wrongs of their ancestors. This present series, and the subsequent trilateral event that includes Australia, will show us how far Zimbabwe have to travel before it can hope to recapture the days when its cricket team could upset any team in the world and did so with some regularity.

On the slender evidence of a few matches, there are grounds for optimism but not without some substantial aid from the ICC. Where cricket once flourished, the soil for renewal is still there, provided the ICC and its members recognise that Zimbabwe cannot farm it alone. Much has been lost during the diaspora of the country’s white families, but there is still enthusiasm for cricket in the schools and it was gratifying to see that the tradition of noisy support for the national team, which was always a feature of cricket in Rhodesia, is still a part of the scene. It will take time to restore the competitiveness of Zimbabwean cricket but time is on Africa’s side.

To be fair to the South African squad, they have approached this current tour with an honesty of purpose. The opposition has been treated with respect and little quarter has been given. I am not sure we can tell if much progress towards the 2015 World Cup has been made until the sterner questions have been asked and answered by these Proteas.

For the next fortnight, I will be travelling in Putin country. When I return to this column, it is not impossible that Roger Federer will be celebrating his sixth U.S. Open title.

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