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Cricket World Cup: Zimbabwe target Dizzy heights

Ray Price (centre) celebrates a wicket with team-mates
Zimbabwe are going into the Cricket World Cup full of optimism

By Sam Sheringham

Jason Gillespie's favourite thing about coaching in Zimbabwe is that no-one seems to know who he is.

"I'm pretty anonymous here," says the former Australia fast bowler, whose mop of curly black hair, dark eyes and goatee beard were all too familiar to the world's top batsmen when he and Glenn McGrath were terrorising them for more than a decade.

"I enjoy just being able to go shopping and I get around pretty unnoticed."

Gillespie arrived in Zimbabwe in August along with legendary South Africa paceman Allan Donald as the star names in a restructuring of domestic cricket aimed at raising standards in the country following its voluntary withdrawal from Test cricket in 2006 after a run of pitiful performances.

They were named coaches of two of five new franchise teams competing against each other in first-class and 40-over competitions, as well as a sponsored Twenty20 league, which has attracted the likes of Andrew Hall, Lance Klusener and West Indies batting icon Brian Lara.

Lara, who was reportedly paid $30,000 for a three-match stint, has also been involved in Zimbabwe's preparations for the Cricket World Cup, helping their batsmen prepare for conditions in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and India, where they open their campaign against Australia on Monday in Ahmedabad.

Assistance from some of the biggest names in world cricket, and the return of former players Alistair Campbell, Grant Flower and Heath Streak (as chairman of selectors, batting coach and bowling coach respectively), has brought a sense of purpose back to Zimbabwe cricket going into the tournament in the subcontinent and their scheduled return to Test cricket with a series against Bangladesh in May.

You hear stories of players not getting paid on time and some franchises still haven't received all their playing gear

Jason Gillespie

Gillespie, nicknamed "Dizzy" after the legendary jazz trumpeter, was drawn to Zimbabwe by the opportunity to launch his coaching career in a country he had enjoyed touring as a player.

While he has been impressed by the competitiveness of the new domestic competitions, he still believes administrators can do more to create a platform for young players to flourish.

"There are still lots of issues here and they need to invest heavily in junior cricket, grounds and facilities," says Gillespie.

"You hear stories of players not getting paid on time and some franchises still haven't received all their playing gear.

"It is not good enough to keep players waiting when they have commitments themselves. They need to work hard to make sure players are looked after because players are the product.

"If you get that professionalism 100% right then I think you will see a dramatic improvement across the board."

Zimbabwe's ultimate goal is a return to the halcyon days of the late 1990s when a team based around Streak, the Flower brothers and Murray Goodwin recorded a Test series victory in Pakistan and came fifth in the 1999 World Cup.

The wheels began to come off in 2003 when Andy Flower and fast bowler Henry Olonga wore black armbands at a World Cup match in their homeland to protest against the "death of democracy" in their country under president Robert Mugabe. Fearing for their safety, the duo retired from international cricket and emigrated to England.

The situation worsened the following year when Streak was replaced as captain by young black wicketkeeper Tatenda Taibu. The move sparked a walkout by 14 other players in protest against political influence in selection policies. A series of woeful performances from a sub-standard team followed, culminating in the withdrawal from Test cricket in January 2006.

Jason Gillespie
Jason Gillespie helped Australia win the 2003 Cricket World Cup

Although Zimbabwe have continued to play one-day internationals, several teams have refused to tour the nation on moral and security grounds, while their performances have generally been well below the standard of the Test-playing countries.

Last year, however, there were marked signs of improvement, with English coach Alan Butcher leading them to victories over India, Sri Lanka and West Indies and a series win over Ireland.

Olonga, whose autobiography Blood, Sweat and Treason lifted the lid on the politics of Zimbabwe cricket, is delighted to see Streak and Grant Flower back in the national team set-up. But he believes the appointment of former captain Campbell as chairman of selectors in 2009 is of even greater significance.

Although Peter Chingoka - the controversial figure who sacked Streak and the other "rebels" - remains chairman of Zimbabwe Cricket, Campbell has narrowed the gap between the board and the players, says Olonga.

"He has brought cricketing experience to an administration that lacked people who had played Test cricket at the highest level," he states.

"Now the players in Zimbabwe can respect the board a little more because they have former players involved in the game."

Zimbabwe's chances of making an impact at the World Cup rest on a handful of players living up to their recent promise.

Brendan Taylor, who scored 145 not out against South Africa in October, has emerged as an opening batsman of genuine quality, Elton Chigumbura is a powerful middle-order hitter, while spin trio Ray Price, Prospero Utseya and Graeme Cremer could be a force on the slow, subcontinent wickets in the World Cup.

"There's a lot of talent here," says Grant Flower, whose brother Andy is England's team director. "The one thing the guys do have to develop and work on is playing under pressure. That will only come from experience. A lot of the guys do fall down when it comes to executing their skills under pressure at international level.

"But a lot of them have quite a bit of experience of international cricket now so I think they can do well at the World Cup.

It took us a long time to be competitive as a Test nation - even with players of the quality of Murray Goodwin, Andy Flower and Heath Streak, we still used to get creamed a lot of the time

Henry Olonga

"There's more money in the game that's being used in a better fashion so I think there's a lot of promise for the future. Hopefully when we start our Test programme against Bangladesh the guys will put on a strong performance and show people we can play Test cricket again."

Zimbabwe could not have asked for a stiffer test than their opener against Australia, winners of the last three World Cups.

But Gillespie is not ruling out Zimbabwe pulling off a shock to rank alongside the one in 1983, when a side captained by former England coach Duncan Fletcher stunned the Aussies on the opening day of the tournament.

"It's going to be an incredibly tough game, but they have beaten Australia a couple of times in last few years, so never say never," he says. "Out of the minnow nations they are probably the strongest team and I think they could cause a couple of surprises in this World Cup."

In the long-term, Olonga believes the involvement of so many Test veterans in Zimbabwean cricket will improve performances, but thinks it will be some time before his former side can once again make waves in the five-day format of the game.

"The standard is very high and I think Zimbabwe will find it tough, but they will improve with time," he comments.

"Once we can start bowling sides out, then we can start winning Test matches. But it took us a long time to be competitive as a Test nation.

"Even with players of the quality of Murray Goodwin, Andy Flower and Heath Streak, we still used to get creamed a lot of the time.

"There is nowhere to hide in Test cricket but this team is definitely better than the team that took over from Heath Streak and his rebels in 2004. They have certainly improved, but by how much I don't know."

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see also
Ireland beat Zimbabwe in warm-up
15 Feb 11 |  Ireland
Zimbabwe return to Tests in 2011
12 Jun 10 |  Zimbabwe
Countries urged to play Zimbabwe
19 Jan 06 |  Zimbabwe
Butcher named new Zimbabwe coach
20 Feb 10 |  Zimbabwe
Cricket World Cup 2011
09 Mar 11 |  Cricket

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