Zimbabwe Test exile nears end
Harare - The crack of bats on balls at the deserted Harare Sports Club rouses rare bursts of cheers from a pitch-side pub as Zimbabwe hosts their first New Zealand cricketing visitors in five years.
The mood at the empty ground was a shadow of the festive crowd that 18 years ago rooted for Zimbabwe's international Test debut. But the muted 'A' match signals a milestone in the country's march out of cricket exile.
"If it was, say, three years ago, it would never have even been discussed," said commentator and Zimbabwe Cricket staffer Deon du Plessis on the thawing of relations toward the long-blackballed host nation.
"If somebody had mentioned the word 'Zimbabwe' they would have said we don't want to go there, we don't want them here."
New Zealand's ending of their boycott on the heels of an Irish tour follows Zimbabwe Cricket's courtship of western cricket nations as it plans a return to the Test arena after voluntarily pulling out 15 years ago.
"Certainly in May we will play a Test match," Zimbabwe Cricket managing director Ozias Bvute said.
"We've said we'll go back next year and we've said we're going to responsibly approach Test cricket and we're going to try and play one-off Tests over the next few years in Zimbabwe."
Zimbabwe's political turmoil dramatically spilt over into the sport with an infamous 2003 World Cup black-armband protest for the "death of democracy" under President Robert Mugabe, the sport's patron.
A couple of years later, authorities shelved the squad's five-day status after a strike by the top, mainly white, players over team selection.
"They seem to think we were kicked out, but that isn't the case," stressed Bvute.
"We were choosing our team from 15 people and when we lost the bulk of them we were no longer able to field a national team."
To tackle this, young black cricketers and local franchises have been targeted, with former Test stars like Heath Streak and Alistair Campbell returning to management posts.
Bvute believes the pool is now larger and more talented.
"Or at least they won't be as scarred as the lot we have now who have been isolated from many of their peers because of the politics that has taken centre-stage over the last few years," he said.
But despite the return of some incoming western teams since a unity government was formed, Zimbabwe has yet to woo cricket giants like Australia and England.
In August, Cricket Scotland refused to send a team after the British government warned of lack of reforms and a return of rule of law.
The return to Test cricket has drawn support from the likes of former black armband-wearing fast bowler Henry Olonga, but questions remain over how the squad will shape up in the five-day version.
"The understanding was always that Zimbabwe would eventually come back to Test cricket. I think the challenge for Zimbabwe is to be able to put together a strong enough team," says leading South Africa cricket writer Colin Bryden.
"Cricket people would probably be very sympathetic towards the cricketers of Zimbabwe but, at the same time, would be concerned they probably wouldn't be highly competitive."
While Zimbabwe's national squad suffered mild losses in Twenty20 matches on a tour to South Africa this month, the three ODIs revealed weaknesses that could be brutally exposed at Test level.
As he watched the New Zealand game, cricket fan Julio Nydam recalled being proud to support Zimbabwe, but also questioned the readiness for Tests.
"Cricket was so popular at one time that the president used to walk across from his home to see us."
Recognisable names - along the likes of former captain and current England coach Andy Flower - are critical to bring in fans now used to the pace of the Twenty20 and ODI formats, he believes.