Robson Sharuko Senior Sports Editor
ENGLISH county cricket team, Derbyshire, who are celebrating their 150th anniversary this year, are expected in Zimbabwe today for a two-week tour pregnant with political weight whose significance, in this country’s aggressive international re-engagement drive, cannot be overemphasised.
It will be the first time in 23 years that an English country cricket team has toured here as relations between Zimbabwe and Britain, whose strain even crippled sporting contacts between the two countries, begin to show signs of thawing.
Another English county cricket side, Durham, is also expected in Harare next week for two three-day battles against a Chairman’s XI at Harare Sports Club.
The last English county team to tour Zimbabwe was Worcestershire in March-April 1997.
And, the last visit to Zimbabwe by the England national cricket team was in November/December 2004 for four One Day Internationals (ODIs), in Bulawayo and Harare.
Cricket has, until now, borne the brunt of the strained political differences between Zimbabwe and Britain, with English cricketers 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 a European Union 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 they would not issue the Zimbabwe national team with visas to enter the country.
Two years later, the British Government exerted pressure on Scotland Cricket to force that country’s cricketers to abandon their tour of Zimbabwe, while an offer by the Scots, for the matches to be shifted to a neutral venue, was rejected by the Zimbabwe Cricket leaders.
However, things have been changing, with the current Zimbabwe political leaders pursuing a vigorous re-engagement policy to bring the country firmly back into the world’s family of nations, and this has led to some of the barriers being removed.
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.
Derbyshire, who will play six matches in this country as part of their pre-season preparations, were invited by Zimbabwe Cricket and most of their matches will be played in Bulawayo.
The travelling Derbyshire delegation will have an evening reception with the British Ambassador to Zimbabwe, Melaine Robinson, tomorrow.
Their first match will be a Twenty20 battle against a Zimbabwe Select XI on Saturday, with another Twenty20 match, against the same team, set for the following day.
The tourists will then play two 50-over matches against the Zimbabwe Select on Tuesday and Thursday next week before they
take on a Chairman’s XI in a three-day match on Saturday, March 23, with their final match being another three-day match against the Zimbabwe Select XI which starts on Wednesday March 25.
Derbyshire’s head of cricket is former Zimbabwe captain and coach, Dave Houghton, who said he hopes the tour will open the gates for other English county sides to tour and help cricket in this country rise again.
“We will be facing some strong opposition during the tour, which will provide ideal preparation for the 2020 season,’’ Houghton told the club’s official website.
“We also want to give the players some life experiences because as cricketers, we can become solely focused on the game sometimes and it’s important to make the most of these opportunities.
“Hopefully this tour will open the door for further English County tours in future, which may help Zimbabwe Cricket get back on its feet.”
During the dark days of the political stand-off between Zimbabwe and Britain, the influential British media used to clamour for sporting relations between the two countries to be scrapped.
However, they have been singing a different tune now.
“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. 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.’’
Durham, who will play two three-day matches at Harare Sports Club starting from next week, 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.
The al-rounder, though, is touring Sri Lanka with the English cricket team.
Both tours are being conducted in partnership with British firm, Briggs of Burton.
The 2020 Derbyshire pre-season tour, in partnership with Briggs of Burton match schedule:
Wednesday 11 March: Evening Reception with British Ambassador to Zimbabwe
Saturday 14 March: T20 vs Zimbabwe Select XI
Sunday 15 March: T20 vs Zimbabwe Select XI
Tuesday 17 March: 50-Over match vs Zimbabwe Select XI
Thursday 19 March: 50-Over match vs Zimbabwe Select XI
Sat 21 – Mon 23 March: Three-Day match vs Chairman’s XI
Wed 25 – Fri 27 March: Three-Day match vs Zimbabwe Select XI