NEXT Sunday, the first ball in the battle for a place at the 2019 ICC Cricket World Cup finals in England and Wales will be bowled at the refurbished Queens Sports Club in Bulawayo when Zimbabwe begin their adventure with a date against Nepal.
Across the city, at the Bulawayo Athletic Club, which has also undergone a massive facelift to host the ICC World Cup Qualifiers 2018 matches, Afghanistan — whose cricket has been improving in leaps and bounds and are fresh from a 4-1 humiliation of the Chevrons in an ODI series in the United Arab Emirates — will be battling Scotland on the same day.
In the capital, on the same day, the Group A matches will get underway with Papau New Guinea taking on the United Arab Emirates at Harare Sports Club while Ireland and Netherlands lock horns at Old Hararians in the other group match.
The West Indies, two-time ICC Cricket World Cup winners and the main drawcard at this 10-nation qualifying battle, will not be in action on the first day of the battles and will only start their campaign with a battle against the UAE at Old Hararians two days later.
These are high-stakes battles given there are only two nations, out of the 10 that will be on the battlefront — Zimbabwe, Afghanistan, Nepal, Scotland, Ireland, West Indies, Papua New Guinea, UAE, Ireland and the Netherlands — who will get the tickets to play at the ICC Cricket World Cup finals in England and Wales next year.
The top three teams from the two groups will qualify for the Super Six stage and, depending on the outcome of the matches, two of the best teams will then meet in the final at Harare Sports Club on March 25 with both sides guaranteed a place at the next World Cup finals.
There are huge financial benefits to reap from making the World Cup finals, on top of the national pride that comes with standing among the best 10 ODI countries on the globe and with a chance to win the ultimate tournament, and cricket fans —and many neutrals — are likely to have a feast as the countries go all out to try and win the two tickets.
The good money, right now, is on the West Indies — who have managed to lure the hard-hitting Chris Gayle to be part of their touring team — and Afghanistan to take the two slots, but as both will testify, anything can happen when it comes to limited overs cricket and a bad day for two or three players, and an inspired performance by the opposition, could see the tables being turned.
Despite their recent poor show, the Chevrons have a right to believe because, in this game, the home conditions matter and the wickets will be prepared to suit their skills and we have already seen Brendan Taylor, Hamilton Masakadza and captain Graeme Cremer coming out to boldly declare that they will make it to England.
After the poor show in the UAE, the selectors have added Sean Williams — an all-rounder who can be handy with both bat and ball in this game — and who missed the tour of the gulf with injury while Cephas Zhuwawo has also been included in the squad.
The Chevrons showed limitations against leg spin in the UAE, where the wickets also tend to help the spinners, and we hope that coach Heath Streak and his technical staff have been working overtime to ensure that our boys are equal to the test when these qualifiers get underway.
There is no reason why we should consider ourselves to be underdogs because, on our day, we can perform very well, just like we showed in that second match of the ODI series against Afghanistan where we blew the Asians away.
The problem we have is that we have lacked consistency and we have tended to put a lot of pressure on the leading batsmen, especially Masakadza, Solomon Mire, Brendan Taylor and Craig Ervine to perform every time we plunge into battle without the others providing the supporting role when, as happens in sport, these main players don’t deliver.
Hopefully, the addition of Williams, who can bat as much as he can bowl, will provide some balance to our side while we don’t still believe that Mire, for all his talent, is an opening batsman, but someone who should come in the middle order to provide the destruction which his instincts always lead him to do.
We are proud to be hosting this big tournament and we hope fans will come in numbers to support as the world will be watching us and we find it refreshing that the politics, which used to stalk us all the time when it came to this game, appear to have disappeared.
That’s why the Scots are here and the Irish are here without the usual commotion that this would have triggered among British politicians who were always trying to use this game for their politics and opposed any visit by these teams to this country.
A number of ICC leaders are also expected to be here and the organisation’s head of media and communications, Sami Ul Hasan, has already advised he will be in Harare from today up to the end of the tournament on March 24.
It’s our show; let’s make it a success story both on and off the field.