Thank goodness that’s over, and we can all agree that this experiment was a failure. Not because it was a four-day Test, not because it was played with a pink ball, but because the gap between the two Full Members who share a border is hemispheres wide and we cannot pretend we don’t know why.
The difference in player pools, in regularity of game-time and exposure to top-tier opposition between Zimbabwe and South Africa, or Zimbabwe and almost any other team, is massive. Until that changes, Zimbabwe will stay a side that can sometimes compete but is most often left stranded in the headlights or, as was the case this time, the floodlights.
After taking five South African wickets and launching an impressive comeback with the ball on the first evening, Zimbabwe lost four themselves but that was hardly the worst of it. In broad daylight on the second day, their next 16 wickets fell for 159 runs and chances are that even if the ball was blue, Zimbabwe would not have been able to avoid being bowled out twice in less than 80 overs.
“It seemed that they were just better than us. We were blown away by their seamers. They didn’t let up, they hit their areas consistently, there was just enough in the wicket and we didn’t adjust to that,” a visibly distressed Graeme Cremer said afterwards. “We knew it was going to be tough, but maybe not this tough. We know we’ve got a long way to go, especially in Test cricket and in conditions which are not flat. When it’s seaming around and bouncing and turning – we need to get used to that.”
Cremer was honest enough to admit that the year in which Zimbabwe seemed to have made their most strides since Test comeback by coming close in Sri Lanka and holding out for a draw against West Indies may actually have been a false dawn because on those occasions the surfaces were “fairly flat.”
He also conceded that Zimbabwe’s first-class system does not come close to adequately preparing the team to make those adjustments because the quality is so low. “Our first-class standard is nowhere near as high as South Africa and Australia. The wickets we play on are quite tired with not a lot of pace and bounce, and they turn a little,” Cremer said. “This sort of attack will test your technique and where you can get away with it, in Harare in Bulawayo, you can’t here.”
He did not go as far as to suggest Zimbabwe take another exile, self-imposed or otherwise, from the longest format but coach Heath Streak sort of did.
“Everyone has spoken about the lack of Test cricket that we play and it has an impact on the calibre of Test cricket we can play and maybe there is an argument for us throwing more of our resources into short-format cricket,” Streak said. “If we are going to play Test cricket, we need to play more than three or four [matches] a year.”
But the chances of Zimbabwe getting any more than that are slim. Since 2011, the most Tests Zimbabwe have played in a year is six (in 2013). For the last two years they have played four Tests each, but only two of the eight away from home. With financial constraints inhibiting their ability to host Tests and their exclusion from the new Test Championship, Zimbabwe are seeing themselves more and more as a “second-tier” Test nation and they don’t mind the label.
“It’s something that needs to be looked at, to give a bit of context to the Test ranking where there is an incentive for guys to play,” Streak said. “If you look at our ranking now and the points that we have – for us to catch up to the next country is going to take a long time and it can be hard to gee yourself up. But if we can play more Test cricket and there is some context, that is something that has to be looked at.”
Though that may mean a few years of playing against only Ireland and Afghanistan before either more nations are included as Test teams or some of the current top nine are relegated and there is a proper double-tiered system, Zimbabwe have received enough of a reality check to understand how badly things can go. “We all want.to play against the best but you’ve got to earn the right. With teams like Afghanistan and Ireland, maybe that’s our opportunity to play a lot more cricket. And once you are playing that, you earn your way to playing top tier nations,” Streak said. “But even then, maybe we play them at home and we can set conditions up to favour us because it’s really tough to play away against top-tier teams in their conditions.”
While Streak is confident Zimbabwe remain a team that “in short format cricket can compete with any country including South Africa,” he won’t shy away from admitting that even he is quite pleased this match is over.