New Delhi: The five-match ODI series between Zimbabwe and Pakistan kicked off in the middle of a spectacular spell of cold weather in Bulawayo, the country’s second largest city. It is pertinent to mention the cold, because it was one of the most remarkable features of an otherwise completely one-sided series.Temperatures during the day hovered around 6 degrees centigrade, and the wind blew up a gale, meaning that the weather eventually turned out to be a tougher adversary than their opponents. For us in the television crew, it was a massive challenge to get things going in what former Pakistan skipper and our commentator, Ramiz Raja called “Arctic conditions”.
With Zimbabwe Cricket struggling to pay their players, and their top players getting together to ask for what was promised to them, the hosts decided to go into the series without Brendan Taylor, Craig Ervine, Sean Williams, Graeme Cremer and also Sikandar Raza, who was ready to play any ODIs that remained once he had finished his stint in the Canadian league, if the Zimbabwean board would give him a no-objection certificate.
ZC refused and Raza then decided to go ahead and play in Canada. They also lost pace bowler Kyle Jarvis and opener Solomon Mire to injuries sustained during the T20 tri-series that preceded this series and Malcolm Waller decided to pull out of the team after being named, due to trade practice concerns.
So, to cut a long story short, the playing field was anything but level as one of the form teams of world cricket took on a side ranked number 12 in the world and bereft of most of the players that took them so close to World Cup qualification just a few months ago.
In the circumstances, Zimbabwe coach Lalchand Rajput, who is on a three-month contract, could be forgiven for wondering just what he can accomplish, if anything at all. With most of the first-choice line-up missing, Rajput had no leaders left on the field. Skipper Hamilton Masakadza looked bereft of ideas and showed poor judgement while batting. With only four players having played over 50 ODIs in the initial squad (Chris Mpofu came in as a late replacement for the final match to make it 5) it was up to him to take charge, but while he did look good when he eventually decided to open, he had no scores of substance. Elton Chigumbura, the most experienced player in the squad, didn’t really help much either, not bowling at all and batting at number 6 where he didn’t score much either.
The only bright sparks were Ryan Murray, who made his debut in the first game as wicketkeeper-batman and the six foot eight inch giant, Blessing Muzarabani, who showed some promise while opening the bowling.
It is very clear though, that if Zimbabwe are to compete with the likes of Afghanistan, Ireland and Scotland, they need all their stars back. For that to happen, they need to get paid, preferably on time – though the board has released a statement on July 25 that the long-delayed payments to players and staff that were to be released today, will be further delayed.
There is talent in the country and if not harnessed, it will either go waste or some other country will step in and pick the cream of the crop. The financial and structural mismanagement needs to stop, or very soon, there will be nothing left to mismanage.
Pakistan on the other hand will leave Zimbabwe having ticked several boxes, mediocre opposition or not. Touring Zimbabwe is a fantastic experience. It is a beautiful, fascinating country and offers something for everyone. It certainly did offer a lot to the two Pakistan openers, Fakhar Zaman and Imam-ul-Haq. They scored 910 runs between them, with five centuries and shattered several records along the way.
In fact, such was their dominance, that they hardly allowed any other player in their team much of a chance to feast on a toothless attack. Shoaib Malik, who started the series needing just 25 runs to get to 7000 ODI runs in a career that began in 1999, was to wait till the last game to reach that landmark, since he only got a chance to bat in the first and last game.
Fakhar Zaman’s 210 not out was the centre-piece of the series, shattering Saeed Anwar’s record of 194 versus India at Chepauk in 1997. He ended the series with a massive 515 runs at an average of 257.5. Talking to the team management around the breakfast table at Bulawayo’s Rainbow Hotel, it is clear that they see him as the hub around which this Pakistan batting revolves. Each time he gets off to a spectacular start, he takes the pressure of the rest of the team, allowing the middle-order to play naturally. With Pakistan’s strength lying in their bowling attack, the added batting muscle makes them a formidable unit.
Meanwhile Imam, whose place in the team has always been questioned because he is the nephew of chief selector Inzamam-ul-Haq, also appeared to cement his place with three centuries in the series. The opening conundrum has haunted Pakistan in the recent past, with Azhar Ali, Kamran Akmal, Babar Azam, Sami Aslam, Sharjeel Khan, Mohammad Hafeez and Faheem Ashraf among the many who have been tried in that position. It is only now though, that the opening combination has put on several good partnerships in succession.
Another headache for coach Mickey Arthur had been the lack of a power hitter in the middle order. In just five games here and in the T20 tri-series that preceded them, Asif Ali has done enough to suggest that he could be a long-term prospect in this most difficult of positions. By the time the series had ended and I asked Arthur if he had solved all his issues, he gave me a huge smile and nodded, yes.
“We came away with a lot of positives and I probably got all I that I was looking for from this series,” he added.
A five-nil hammering and success with both bat and ball was exactly what Pakistan needed before the Asia Cup in September, where the opposition will be stiffer but the temperatures won’t be quite as severe as Bulawayo.
(Hemant Buch is a media professional with nearly 25 years of experience in sports broadcasting. He currently travels the world, directing and producing cricket. While not sitting in front of a bank of monitors, he’s indulging in his other passion – photography. He tweets @hemantbuch)
First Published: July 26, 2018, 1:01 PM IST