One of the lessons that can be taken from recent events in Western politics is that it is increasingly possible to go a long way simply by talking a big game. Britain’s exit from the European Union was premised on promises that were actually some distance from the truth, while Donald Trump’s campaign for the White House has gathered momentum not from strong policy, but from talking about how “great” he’s going to make everything.
If only it were so simple for Zimbabwe cricket, because in acting head coach Makhaya Ntini they have a leader who knows how to talk a good game.
Before last month’s visit by an Indian second-string side, the former South Africa fast bowler suggested that Zimbabwe was creating a new venture. “We want to make sure that this country gets to play more games, and if you send us a team that is not your strongest team, we’re going to put them under the carpet so that they go home and tell people that they need to send their strongest team,” he said.
But sport is not so fickle as politics – its outcomes have a stronger attachment to substance, truth and reality. Zimbabwe failed to score more than 168 as they lost the one-day internationals 3–0, and although they won one Twenty20 match and competed in another, the third game was a 10-wicket walkover for an inexperienced Indian team.
“We build day-by-day, player-by-player. The team that we have is a good team, a team that can take on every country,” Ntini said when it was all over.
Ntini is not entirely wrong, but it was impossible to shake off the sense of déjà vu. Less than a year earlier, Dav Whatmore, a coach with far more experience than Ntini, had sat in the same chair and made similar promises. “Please bear with us,” he had exhorted after similar losses to India.
Whether Zimbabwe were making any progress under Whatmore is debatable, but his sacking just 10 days before the India tour undoubtedly set the team back, so that now they must rebuild once more. Ntini and his batting coach Lance Klusener deserve some time – as anyone entrusted with such positions in sport do – but they have some harsh realities to face this coming month.
First up, a strong South Africa A side will be visiting for two four-day matches – one at Harare Sports Club from July 9, the second at Queens in Bulawayo from the 15th. In Stephen Cook, Vernon Philander, Dane Piedt, Dane Vilas, Stiaan van Zyl, and Hardus Viljoen they have six players with Test experience.
They are supposed to be playing against a Zimbabwe A team, but one imagines that all of Zimbabwe’s top players will be in action at some point of the series as they prepare for the visit of New Zealand at the end of the month.
The Black Caps will play two Tests in Bulawayo starting on July 28, by which time it will be a full 20 months since Zimbabwe last played a five-day game. Adding to the home side’s rustiness will be the fact that the domestic first-class season finished in early March.
The Twenty20 games were a reminder that Zimbabwe can still compete in the shortest format of the game, but there is nowhere to hide in long-form cricket. Unless Zimbabwe’s players begin to produce some sort of substance, Ntini’s big talk will once again be shown as nothing more than hot air.
Image: There is hard work ahead for recently appointed Zimbabwe coach and former South African fast bowler Makhaya Ntini.