By Enock Muchinjo
THE England cricket team on Sunday completed the first leg of their southern Africa tour with a clean sweep of the Nissan One-Day International (ODI) series against Zimbabwe. The Englishmen
have since crossed the Limpopo to engage South Africa in a Test and ODI series, while Zimbabwe are left digesting the outcome of yet another learning curve.
The South Africa/England series promises intense competition. As the two sides look at par with each other in terms of strength and experience. South Africa, though no longer the intimidating Test side they were a few years ago, will all the same fancy their chances of winning the series.
The Proteas have just come from India where they went down 1-0 in the Test series, but their relatively young side displayed good fighting spirit on the sub-continent, and with older and established Test players like the world class Shaun Pollock, Jacques Kallis and Makhaya Ntini anchoring the side, England will be in for a tough series.
The ODIs should also be a close affair, with England being one of the best limited-overs sides in the world at the moment, and players like all-rounder Andrew Flintoff, pace bowler Steve Harmison and opening batsman Marcus Trescothick, who missed the Zimbabwe matches, are expected to join their teammates down south.
Zimbabwe resume their Test cricket commitments in the new year, with Bangladesh being their first opponents and South Africa following soon afterwards. Both series are away, and international cricket will only return to Zimbabwe in September.
There is a fine dividing line between Zimbabwe and Bangladesh at Test level, and the current team will be hard-pressed to maintain that position over Test cricket’s youngest member. Bangladesh are ever improving, and they nearly caused an upset against Zimbabwe in a Nissan ODI series here back in March.
Coming out of the ODI series with England, the mood in the Zimbabwe camp should be mixed as the series was simply a tale of positives and negatives. The negatives are not even that England won, for that was expected, but component things like the batsmen’s failure to put up partnerships and their suspect footwork which saw many a wicket falling as a result.
On the positive side, it was good to see previously underperforming batsmen coming of age, especially Stuart Matsikenyeri. The bowling to an extent also provided hope for the future, both on the pace and spin fronts.
Matsikenyeri began the tour as a part-time spinner that his captain could use as an option, but after he emerged with six wickets in four matches from his rotational and flight finger spin, Matsikenyeri proved that he can be a useful cricketer, something which many have questioned. His batting also seems to have come right, the highlight of it being a brilliant 74 runs at the top of the order in the third ODI in Bulawayo.
The bowlers did well under the conditions. The team’s first-choice spin bowler Prosper Utseya retained commendable economy rates although the wickets continue to evade him. The seamers also tried their best, with medium pacer Edward Rainsford recording the best bowling figures of 2 for 25 from 10 overs in the last match. Tinashe Panyangara was his usual exciting prospect, but was rather expensive as the search for variation let him down. In the second match in Harare he took three wickets but went for 61 runs. Debutant Chris Mpofu did not bowl badly either, but he is one for the future and certainly needs a little more time in first class cricket before he can be expected to deliver.
The failure by the Zimbabwe bowlers to consolidate good positions is a direct result of the lack of quality back-up bowling. Twice in the series England were in serious trouble, after having been reduced to 125 for 5 and 104 for 5 in the second and last matches respectively, but the Zimbabwe change bowlers could not keep the pressure on the England batting order which went on to post totals of over 250 for the loss of few wickets.
All-rounders Elton Chigumbura and Mluleki Nkala had been entrusted with backing up the front-line bowlers, but were not up to the task, justifying the need to for the selectors to pick at least four specialist bowlers for a match.
The batting order continues to be the team’s major trouble spot. Batsmen succumbed to soft dismissals and never looked psyched-up to have a go at the English bowling attack, despite three well-played innings by Matsikenyeri, Elton Chigumbura and Hamilton Masakadza who all scored half-centuries. Dion Ebrahim also had a couple of gutsy innings, but was still characteristically slow, while his skipper Tatenda Taibu had to drop himself down the order to number seven in the third match.
It will be interesting to see how the touring party to Bangladesh will perform.