By Enock Muchinjo
A strong foundation that had been laid by Zimbabwean cricket authorities at the advent of the professional era, when money started to flow into the sport, was to take good financial care of both national team players and those in the fringes.
For a small cricketing nation, there were ample funds in the coffers – from increased International Cricket Council (ICC) grants and commercial revenue — to guarantee that even players outside the national team made a comfortable living from the game.
While those in the national side of course land the more lucrative l contracts, the welfare of players in the domestic first-class system should be top priority too because they are hugely important to any serious cricket-playing nation.
They are the lifeline. No every first-class cricketer goes on to play for the national team, but these are the players who give you a strong domestic structure, a base — from which future internationals are produced — and they also provide competition to those already in the national side and keep them on their toes.
The story of how domestic cricket in Zimbabwe collapsed post-2004 disturbances is well-documented. To this day, the domestic game it still is in the intensive care.
It is a case of killing the goose that laid the golden eggs, and thus unsurprisingly Zimbabwe has not only been unable to maintain standards of old. Zimbabwe has been overtaken by Bangladesh and Afghanistan with others following suit at rapid pace.
Netherlands last week completed an emphatic ODI series whitewash over Zimbabwe on the African team’s ongoing Europe tour and as you read this, Hamilton Masakadza’s men were battling to level the one-day contest with an Irish side that took a 1-0 lead earlier in the week.
While the small group of centrally-contracted national team players has been receiving its dues timely of late due to an ICC-controlled financial and management structure, the first-class cricketer is poorer than ever, an outcast of the Zimbabwean cricket system.
Because only those with national team contracts earn a decent regular income from the game, and that’s just a group of 10 to 12 players, numerous Zimbabwean club and first-class cricketers have prematurely ended their playing careers.
Others have left the game altogether, reduced to bystanders, while some have been lucky to secure other cricketing opportunities elsewhere outside the Zimbabwe Cricket (ZC) structure.
For some with no fallback plan, being discarded by the system has gone to the very core of their financial, health and even mental status.
One former player, a feared fast bowler domestically and once on the doorstep of the national team, used to litter the family’s Highfield house wall with meaningless written stuff as mental disintegration took toll on the one-time prodigy.
“Some of us have managed to stay sane, but it’s depressing to see what guys have had to go through,” former first-class player Stephen Nyamuzinga tells IndependentSport. “I have seen players who have gone through such things, or worse, trust me.”
Nyamuzinga, a gifted all-rounder with two centuries in a short first-class stint, cricket as a career was the goal until many players got frustrated by lack of meaningful rewards from the game.
“The disparity that I thought was a bit odd was the difference in salary scales between national team players and the other players. I thought those differences were not justified hence probably making more people wanting to move away from ZC.”
Thirty-two-year-old Nyamuzinga, who played for Manicaland and Zimbabwe Under-19s, moved away from cricket in his 20s and these days he survives on his solar project business in Namibia and Angola.
“When I started playing cricket initially I wasn’t much concerned about the administration side of the game,” he says. “But you quickly realise then how good and how bad things are when you become part of the system. I thought the initiative of having franchise cricket was a positive move, but if you also have people who in my opinion were on the incompetent side, then you end up with nothing. I mean, for example we had (the late) Phil Senzani as our CEO at (Manicaland) Mountaineers. We fought the whole season, the whole first season, and up to now we still have match fees and monies that were never paid from that time.”
The current state of the Zimbabwe national team, according to Churchill and Peterhouse alumnus Nyamuzinga, is reflection of the deterioration of the game’s structures over the years.
“By the time I started playing my first-class cricket, the CFX Academy had been shut down of which I thought, growing up, that was a top-class institution. When we played, the CFX Academy was out. So from the point of view of preparing us to the next level, I don’t think ZC did any justice at all. I think for the next generation of players that came, they just benefitted from a bunch of talented cricketers. If you recall, my stream is the same one with Tino Mawoyo, Brendan Taylor, (current New Zealand star) Colin de Grandhomme, Tafadzwa Mufambisi, Sean Williams, (Kuda) Samunderu and a whole lot of other guys. Outside this group, cricket development in Zimbabwe hasn’t gone well.
“Had more been done for many other cricketers who I’ve played with, I think Zimbabwe would have had a far better team, far better development structures. But it all goes back to the incompetence of the administrators. Not enough was done to make people stay here. I went to school with Gary Ballance, but he opted to go and have a career with England. Colin de Grandhomme, I played age-group matches with him, he ended up in New Zealand. Then there are a whole lot of other Zimbabweans we’ve known that have left.”
Talent drain and pay issues have been one of the foremost evils at the centre of Zimbabwean cricket’s decline.
It makes for sad reading when told by somebody who has experienced it.
“Our player base is so small that we cannot afford to have people leave. And in the same breath, our player base is so small that we can still be able to give people half-decent contracts,” says Nyamuzinga.
“I know the economic situation is bad, but ZC gets funding in US dollars from the ICC. What’s the justification for paying someone $10 000 and then pay someone else $250, people who are supposed to play in the same first-class set-up? I understand yes, performance and talent et cetera et cetera play a bit in terms of contracts. Not everyone who plays cricket will become a successful cricketer. But there has to be a standard contract that encourages people to take cricket as a career path.”