A raucous home audience was shocked when Zimbabwe lost the final two games of the qualifier, much like in 2018.
Bulawayo experiences the Harare hurt as Zimbabwe’s dream comes crashing again
A former Zimbabwean cricketer was questioned if unrest had reached Bulawayo after the first turmoil in Harare that would lead to the coup that ousted former President Robert Mugabe from office. He chuckled; getting to Bulawayo takes time for something that starts in Harare. Life in Bulawayo continued as usual, with almost any increased military presence in the nation’s second-largest city, even though soldiers fenced off the Zimbabwean Parliament, armored vehicles flooded the streets, and roadblocks encircled critical government facilities in the nation’s capital. It doesn’t follow that something in Harare will also occur in Bulawayo.
Most of the time that might be a damned annoyance, but four months after the coup, Bulawayo might have been grateful it wasn’t forced to watch another incident in Harare. Zimbabwe needed to defeat UAE, the weakest team at the 2018 Men’s World Cup Qualifier, at the Harare Sports Club to advance to the 50-over World Cup the following year, which was meant to be a lifeline for cricket in the nation. Harare prepared for the celebration that would undoubtedly follow the game when UAE scored 235. When it started to rain, a contentious DLS application made an easy chase into a difficult one. Zimbabwe fluffed their lines and dropped out of the running for the 2019 World Cup as a frightened audience watched. Those eerie images eventually made their way to Bulawayo half a decade later. Zimbabwe’s quest to qualify for the 2023 World Cup was going wonderfully. Before upsetting the West Indies and crushing the USA by a record score, they had despatched Nepal and the Netherlands. They narrowly defeated Oman and were now able to secure a spot in cricket’s biggest competition, which would be played in the sport’s largest market, with just one victory from their final two games. This was precisely how Zimbabwe’s previous qualification campaign had gone, but no one dared to mention it. Zimbabweans rejoiced in their victories, but no one was yet celebrating while they did. I phoned my colleague in Zimbabwe, Firdose Moonda, shortly after the win over the West Indies to say that I couldn’t wait to see how they would manage to fail to qualify despite their significant advantages. Even though I was only half-joking then, it no longer seems amusing.
Few things are as happy as a younger sibling receiving an unexpected benefit denied by the eldest. Therefore, Bulawayo was eager to revel in its good fortune as it prepared for the celebration Harare had never enjoyed five years prior. The crowd at the Harare Sports Club was as dense and raucous as ever. Nothing compares to playing cricket in a tiny, crowded area where everyone knows, loves, and lives the game. Bulawayo can compete with any city in the world in this fashion. But Scotland has its own World Cup aspirations and is not the United Arab Emirates. The ICC’s inexplicably wise decision to limit the World Cup to ten teams for the second consecutive edition gives these Qualifiers an invariably macabre air, turning them into something akin to a cricketing Hunger Games with only two survivors remaining and many deserving candidates being eliminated along the way for no apparent reason. The teams beyond the top eight don’t need any further encouragement to show up. Still, as the pieces that fall from the main table get smaller and smaller, the fighting gets crazier and crazier, and the repercussions of even the slightest error are more and more severe.
Scotland has undoubtedly scrapped. They defeated Ireland in the tournament opener with a hardly believable result. Before giving Sri Lanka a slight scare and then trouncing the West Indies, they easily beat the UAE and Oman. Scotland would have been eliminated with a victory for Zimbabwe, and elimination is an existential catastrophe. Following Zimbabwe’s elimination from the 2019 World Cup, they experienced severe financial difficulties that nearly led to their total dissolution. The ICC suspended them the following year.
The memories of that pain and those wasted years propelled Zimbabwe when they won the toss and bowled first. For 45 of the 50 overs, they managed to contain Scotland, but as soon as they relaxed their composure, they found their faces covered in blood. With 55 runs scored in the final five overs, Scotland set Zimbabwe 235 runs to win thanks to a valuable cameo from Michael Leask (48 off 34 balls). No one was alarmed yet, even though it was the exact score UAE posted five years prior.
Even though this was a home crowd, Bulawayo’s weather defied their attempts to control it. There was a chill in the air, and the sky was cloudy. If this game were being played in Chris Sole’s hometown of Aberdeen, he couldn’t have asked for finer bowling conditions, and the threat he posed to Zimbabwe was evident from ball one. First up, Joylord Gumbie stole an away swinger, allowing Scotland to break through Zimbabwe’s defense for the first time. However, Gumbie has had such a brutal campaign that his name is beginning to feel like a misnomer. Zimbabwe’s best had few responses as Sole reached speeds above 90 mph (145 kph), a rarity on the Associate circuit—an inswinger from around the wicket that was a worldie managed to get through Craig Ervine’s defense. Even Sean Williams, whose performance in this competition has elevated him to the ranks of the supernatural, was brought back to earth when Sole hit a fastball over the wicket and knocked back his stumps. In Bulawayo, the weird sense of impending letdown was starting to set in. There was nothing but gloom and no blue skies in the distance.
Zimbabwe did what Zimbabwe has done to their supporters for a long time: they forced them into the arms of destruction after dragging them through the agony of hope. Sikandar Raza and Ryan Burl momentarily regained the initiative, and Wessly Madhevere even gave his team the advantage with a nice little inning. Burl appeared unbeatable at the other end, and as Zimbabwe reached 165 for 5, it seemed the ghosts of 2018 might finally be banished. In Zimbabwe, hope is the last thing you lose, and this group discovered that it was still alive inside them. However, Scotland ended that alliance and maintained their composure as Zimbabwe lost theirs. Even with a valiant late effort by Burl, the target was still too far away due to the intense strain and enormous stakes. The game’s final minutes were reminiscent of those scary movies where you discover the demon you thought you had exorcised is still alive. In 2023, Zimbabwe finally gave up and collapsed, adding another five years of ODI wilderness to their cricketing woes.
Compared to 2018, Zimbabwe cricket is in a much better position. Most athletes agree that the environment in the locker room is better than anything they’ve ever encountered. Zimbabwe’s cricket performances and playing style under Dave Houghton revived a nation on the verge of collapse only a few years ago. Compared to 2018, this setback is much more reversible, although, at night, it would be difficult to persuade anyone of that. Ervine was thinking about the Harare game during the post-game interviews. Still, he was also knowledgeable enough to put this performance in context and separate it from what transpired against the UAE. It’s always wonderful to put the demons from 2018 behind us, and if we had crossed the finish line today, no one would have asked about it, he added. “Unfortunately, we were unable to cross the finish line. Williams has been excellent, and we can learn a lot from him. The guys’ dedication to their work and hard labor makes me very proud. We appreciate the crowd’s attendance and support, especially over the past few weeks. The audience is showing up to support us because we are playing a fascinating type of cricket.
Four of Tendai Chatara’s teammates from Tuesday’s game were also present in 2018, along with the last player to be cleaned up. Most people have been honest about the deep hurt that day brought about and how it has persisted for so long. They will suffer like the millions of Zimbabweans who lived through 2018 and 2023. Redemption was a mirage, and that cusp was nothing more than a cliff.
Bulawayans may have been getting ready for a party on Tuesday. Instead, they embrace one other while holding Harare to express a pain they both fully understand. Suddenly, it does not feel as far between Harare and Bulawayo.
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