Robson Sharuko Senior Sports Editor
FOR the first time in 23 years, two English county cricket teams — Derbyshire and Durham — will visit Zimbabwe on a tour pregnant with political weight, amid an aggressive international re-engagement drive by this country’s leadership.
The last English county to tour Zimbabwe was Worcestershire in March-April 1997.
The last visit to Zimbabwe by the England national cricket team was in November and December 2004 for four One Day Internationals (ODIs) in Bulawayo and Harare.
Since then, cricket relations between the two countries had been strained by political differences and English cricketers were repeatedly forced by their Government not to tour Zimbabwe.
The impasse first emerged when England forfeited its 2003 World Cup match against Zimbabwe in Harare and, a few years later, the then Zimbabwe Cricket chairman, Peter Chingoka, was handed an EU travel ban.
The Chevrons were forced to withdraw from the ICC Twenty20 World Cup in England in 2008, as part of a compromise for the tournament to go ahead, after the British government told the International Cricket Council (ICC) they would not issue the Zimbabwe team with visas to enter England.
And, two years later, the British government put a lot of pressure on Scotland Cricket to force that country’s cricketers to abandon their tour of Zimbabwe and an offer by the Scots for the matches to be played on neutral soil was rejected by ZC leaders.
However, with the current political leaders in Zimbabwe pursuing a vigorous re-engagement policy to bring the country firmly back into the world’s family of nations, some of the barriers have been collapsing.
Even the powerful media voices, which used to campaign for the English cricket authorities to maintain their hardline stance to isolate Zimbabwe, have been mellowing and are now beginning to sing a different tune.
“Cricket is clinging on in Zimbabwe but desperately needs the help England owe it to survive,’’ Scyld Berry, the Cricket Journalist of the Year, wrote recently in The Daily Telegraph, the largest circulating British broadsheet newspaper.
“England’s two best coaches, Duncan Fletcher and Andy Flower, came from Zimbabwe.
“When Sri Lanka had to bat out the last day in Harare, who was their batting coach but Zimbabwe’s second highest Test run-scorer, Grant Flower?
“Dave Houghton is passing on the knowledge that enabled him to score 266 against Sri Lanka, when they had Muttiah Muralitharan, to Derbyshire as their head coach.
“It really is time England gave something back.’’
Three years ago, the Chevrons completed a tour of Scotland without any problems while both the Scots and the Irish came to Zimbabwe for the 2018 ICC Cricket World Cup Qualifier held in Harare and Bulawayo.
And, now, for the first time in more than two decades, two English county cricket teams are coming to Zimbabwe next month.
Derbyshire, whose head of cricket is former Zimbabwe captain and coach, Houghton, will be making its maiden tour of this country, next month, while Durham will be making its second visit.
Durham last toured Zimbabwe in 1991/1992.
England vice-captain, Ben Stokes, who helped his country win the ICC Cricket World Cup last year, is Durham county cricket club’s highest-profile star and received the Sir Garfield Sobers Trophy for the ICC Cricketer of the Year.
Stokes made history when he became the highest-paid overseas player in the history of the Indian Premier League in 2017 after landing a contract of US$2.1 million.
“For the first time in more than two decades, Zimbabwe Cricket (ZC) will host not just one but two English county teams in March,’’ Zimbabwe Cricket confirmed in a statement.
“Having accepted ZC’s invitation, Derbyshire and Durham will play across three formats in matches against local select opposition in Bulawayo and Harare, respectively.
“The last county team to officially visit Zimbabwe was Worcestershire in March-April 1997.
“Led by former Zimbabwe captain and coach Dave Houghton who is their head of cricket, Derbyshire will be touring the country for the first time and will face a Zimbabwe Select side in two T20 matches, two 50-over games and two three-day fixtures at Queens Sports Club in Bulawayo.
“Durham, who toured Zimbabwe in the 1991/92 season, will play two three-day matches versus the Chairman’s XI at Harare Sports Club in the capital.’’
Zimbabwe Cricket director of cricket, Hamilton Masakadza, said the tour by the two English county cricket sides would be a huge boost for the game in this country.
“We are thrilled to be hosting Derbyshire and Durham. The magnitude and importance of their visit cannot be over-emphasised,” he said.
“While our players will learn big lessons and gain invaluable experience from playing against such top opposition, we believe this marks the beginning of a new chapter that will hopefully see more English county teams touring Zimbabwe as that will go a long way in preparing our players for the rigours of high-level and international cricket.”