Here's to the next 20 years!

HARARE - Today, October 18 2012, marks the 20th anniversary of Zimbabwe's first ever Test cricket match, pitting the hosts against a full strength Indian side at Harare Sports Club in the capital.

When Zimbabwe were granted full Test status on July 8, 1992, there were many sceptics who believed that including a country who's cricket team consisted out of a couple of lawyers, tomato growers, game ranchers and a chicken farmer would seriously tarnish the squeaky clean image of the game.

 20 years ago there was no such thing as digital television or internet and the world had to gather information through faxes sent from their respective reporters or through radio reports on stations such as BBC World Service for the international community, while people back home were fortunate enough to be treated to live crossings to Harare Sports Club, which lasted 30 minutes.

The Test match itself was a memorable one with Zimbabwe playing out the full five days and finishing the match with their heads held high as the Test ended in a draw.

Captain Dave Houghton won the toss and elected to bat and even though the batting was painful to watch at times, Zimbabwe batted themselves in to a draw as they posted a more than respectable total of 456, with Houghton leading the way as he stroked 121 runs.

 There were also good contributions from Grant Flower, who made 82 off a massive 283 balls and Andy Flower, who was slightly more adventurous with 59.

 Zimbabwe however suffered a huge setback when pace bowler Eddo Brandes twisted his ankle after bowling just three deliveries.

 This was to be the first of many injuries which plagued the powerfully-built fast bowler, which was an outright shame as many people never got to see him at his very best.

Despite the loss of Brandes, Zimbabwe stuck to their task and dismissed India for 307, thanks in the main to 45-year-old off-spinner John Traicos, who took 5-87.

 The early days of Zimbabwe's Test career were probably just as intense for me as they were for the players.

 I was doing my schooling in a town called Worcester, which is just outside Cape Town and my only means of getting updates was by making phone calls to what was then known as Radio One, who I have to admit were more than willing to keep me posted.

 But phone calls, like most things in life, cost money, and it wasn't long before my limited amount of pocket money had been exhausted and I had to resort to selling my sweets and chocolates that my parents had so lovingly bought for me.

 Although Zimbabwe were comprehensively beaten in their first away Test match against India in 1993, it was a considerably better effort than the one-off Test played against New Zealand earlier this year.

 The Flower brothers showed composure and maturity as they added 192 for the fourth wicket, with Andy going on to score his maiden test century and by doing so, promptly announced himself as a player for the future, though nobody would have guessed that a cricketer from Zimbabwe would go on to be the world's number one ranked test batsman.

As time went by, the game both on and off the field began to change.

On the field, the batsmen started to believe in themselves and their ability and started to take the game to the opposing bowlers.

Alistair Campbell in particular took a liking to the Pakistani fast bowlers when Zimbabwe toured Pakistan in 1993 and had the third Test not been disrupted by bad weather, Zimbabwe would quite possibly have recorded their first Test win in only their seventh Test match as they bundled Pakistan out for a paltry 147 and then gained a handy first innings lead of 97 before bad weather saved Pakistan's blushes.

 The team however didn't have too much longer to wait before they achieved their first win when they thrashed Pakistan by an innings and 65 runs at Harare Sports Club in February 1995.

 Zimbabwe were unable to take advantage of the win and lost the series by two Test matches to one.

Despite the series loss, those who gave Zimbabwe no chance were beginning to speak differently about the game ranching, tomato growing, chicken farming and lawyers as they realised that despite their inexperience, these players were not only prepared to survive the five days of Test cricket, but also prepared to play aggressive and competitive cricket.

 Recognition and respect was beginning to come Zimbabwe's way as the then 21-year-old Heath Streak shot up the Test rankings to number four, which subsequently earned him a one-year contract with Hampshire.

 While the Flower brothers continued to churn out runs and Heath Streak continued to grow from strength to strength, the most important part of Zimbabwe's cricketing history was beginning to develop slowly but surely.  Players of colour started to make their presence known.

Henry Olonga, Mpumelelo “Pommie” Mbangwa but to name a few, were consistently taking wickets for Matabeleland as well as for various select sides and when they graduated to the Test side, formed a vital cog in the seam bowling department.

Olonga's raw pace and ability to take wickets, as well as Mbangwa's impeccable line and length allowed Heath Streak to also focus on his batting which on several occasions helped the team out of tricky situations.

The country’s performances on the field not only attracted the interest of cricketing officials, but players who were born and bred in the country started making enquiries as to how possible it would be to return to their country of birth in order to play Test cricket.

And so in November 1997, Zimbabwean-born and bred batsman Murry Goodwin left Western Australia and returned to the country of his birth to play Test cricket. When all-rounder Neil Johnson followed Goodwin's example a year later, the team had a very balanced look about them and the international media started referring to Zimbabwe as the happy family.

This was due to the fact that even though Zimbabwe had no superstars to speak of, the team played for each other and for the country which led to them qualifying for the super six stage in the 1999 World Cup, thanks to victories over Kenya, India and the tournament favourites, South Africa.

At first, the tag of being called the happy family sat very nicely with the team. But as time went by, Neil Johnson and Murray Goodwin started to voice their opinions and displeasure at the very small amount of money they were being paid and after the conclusion of Zimbabwe's tour to England in 2000, both Johnson and Goodwin parted company with Zimbabwe, leaving a very bitter taste of betrayal in the mouths of administrators and supporters.

Many people still to this day feel that the only reason they came back was to play World Cup cricket in England before conveniently moving on to greener pastures.

The year 2001 was a monumental year for the country as several players of colour made their debut with the likes of Tatenda Taibu, Dion Ebrahim, Brighton Watambwa and Hamilton Masakadza doing their country proud as they all contributed not only towards events on the field, but also towards events off the field, showing thousands of envious and previously disadvantaged children that anything was possible if you had a passion to pursue your dream. And when 17-year-old Hamilton Masakadza raised his bat to his team and his Churchill High schoolmates to celebrate his maiden Test century, he brought tears to the eyes of each and every teammate, schoolmate, spectator, commentator and reporter as a new chapter was witnessed in the cricketing history of this small but determined nation.

 The year 2003 was a year of mixed emotions for the country. One of the country’s proudest moments was when they co-hosted the World Cup along ide South Africa and Kenya, and although they progressed to the Super Sixes, it wasn't the greatest of tournaments for Zimbabwe.

To make matters worse, both Andy Flower and Henry Olonga announced that due to personal reasons they would no longer be playing for the country.

This left fans in a state of shock as the realisation sunk in that two of the country’s biggest cricketing heroes would never again grace the fields of Harare Sports Club or Queens Sports Club.

Despite these untimely losses, Zimbabwe held their own against the major playing nations but it all came to a nasty head in April 2004 when Heath Streak was sacked as cricket captain after an argument with the then Zimbabwe Cricket Union.

 This led to most of the senior players resigning in sympathy due to what they felt was unfair treatment of their captain, which in turn left Zimbabwe cricket in tatters.

 Players from the Under-19 team were suddenly expected to step up to the plate and play against Sri Lanka and Australia, who had sent out full strength sides.

This was a huge shame and most people couldn't help but feel sorry for these youngsters. We have to remember that the majority of the players had very little if any first-class experience they also had to adjust their diets and intensify their training both on and off the field.

Tatenda Taibu was the only player who had some sort of experience, but even he had played a handful of Tests and had very little to offer other than his courage and determination.

Unfortunately, these events also influenced the decision of sponsors and future players and the on-going war between the media and Zimbabwe cricket all added to the mayhem.

There are many people who are of the opinion that although cricket in Zimbabwe has been able to sustain itself, it still has a long way to recover and to get back to where they used to be before the trouble and sadness started.

It would however be unfair to say that cricket has never been the same since the departure of so many players and administrator.

We need only  cast our minds back to August last year when Zimbabwe made Bangladesh look like a club side in their return to Test cricket as well as many heart-warming victories in both one-day internationals as well as Twenty20 cricket. But watching the on-going Champions League in South Africa, one can't help but ask the question, what if…?

 There are currently two very talented Zimbabweans in the tournament in Colin de Grandhomme and Gary Balance, who now ply their trade overseas. All-rounder Sean Ervine, who plays for Hampshire, would still have been in this country and playing Test cricket if the tragic events had not unfolded.

 There is an old and true saying that says "don't cry over spilt milk."

 Despite the setbacks, Zimbabwe still have a lot to be proud of and many happy memories.

 And so as we remember the happy and not-so happy times, I propose a toast and say, here's to the next 20 years! - Dean du Plessis

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