x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

If there's a will, there's a way for Zimbabwe's players

If a week is a long time in politics, then what does a year count for in cricket in Zimbabwe, where the sport is so intrinsically linked with the effects of political upheaval?

If a week is a long time in politics, then what does a year count for in cricket in Zimbabwe, where the sport is so intrinsically linked with the effects of political upheaval?

The start of this World Cup marks the one-year anniversary of the Englishman Alan Butcher's spell as coach of the Zimbabwe national team.

Out of work since parting company with Surrey in 2008, Butcher went against all respected wisdom by taking up the position.

Zimbabwe were a pariah within international cricket back then, and to some extent still are.

As recently as September, a Marylebone Cricket Club tour there was cancelled on advice of the UK's Foreign Office.

"There has been insufficient progress in the fundamental issues of political reform to justify sports tours to Zimbabwe by British teams, including county sides," Hugh Robertson, the sports minister, said.

However, the fortunes of the country's cricketers are starting to turn. After a lengthy, self-imposed exile from the Test game, they have been earmarked for a return when they meet Bangladesh in May.

In this World Cup, they will not have to do much to exceed lowly expectations, and hope springs for Butcher, 57.

He said he had been in Zimbabwe "at the height of the Independence War" in 1976 and "never felt unsafe or threatened". He thought conditions now might not be as dire as reported.

"There seemed to be a real will, certainly from a cricket point of view for both sides to come together and get cricket going," he said. "That also seemed to translate into the normal way of life."

Butcher's arrival in Zimbabwe was followed by that of a raft of high-profile signings for the country's domestic Twenty20 competition, such as Jason Gillespie and Brian Lara.

With a steady trickle of senior players away from the country during the bad times, the young players of the national team are now lucky to have Lara to call on as a batting consultant in Asia.

Lara said the bar is higher at a senior international event. "Some very young players have been plunged into international cricket because of unfortunate circumstances," Lara said. "At the grade of cricket they are playing, they could perform very well yet still struggle to do it when the bar was raised at senior international level.

"That is the gap we have to bridge. They may be the best player in their country, but when you are playing against the likes of England, Australia and India it is a different ball game.

"It is not impossible to do. It is about preparation which has to be done by the players, management and support staff to get everybody to where they want to be."

Butcher added: "No one is going to pretend that things are perfect. But there does seem to be a huge will for people to get on with their lives in a multiracial way.

"Cricket is totally multiracial. There are no quotas to fulfil, and I am thoroughly enjoying it. If we can set out our game plans and play to them in five of the six games, that will represent a fantastic tournament."