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Zimbabwe's history with England
England have finally decided to play them for the first time in a bilateral in over 20 years.
Zimbabwe are in trouble again. 134 all out. This was the World Cup where they thought they would get respect, but in their last game against England, they couldn’t even put up a decent score.
Their World Cup started so well. They made 300 against Sri Lanka and then took regular wickets until the Lankans got home with three balls and wickets in hand.
They put up a decent fight against Pakistan, but could not make the runs fast enough to really scare them. Also, a young quick called Wasim Akram took 3/21.
Brian Lara knocked the ball around for a while for the West Indies, and there was no way Zimbabwe were going to put a proper dent in that chase.
The match against New Zealand was a mess. It wasn’t their fault, rain and a terrible system that existed pre-DLS meant that they had to chase 154 runs in 18 overs. It may not sound like a lot now, but back then to Zimbabwe, it would have.
The same kind of thing happened in the India game. Of course, Sachin Tendulkar was around too. But they were, according to the runs lost system at the time, 50 runs behind where they needed to be when the final rain came.
South Africa toyed with them like food. It’s a sin that the ICC won’t put up all of Kepler Wessel’s 70 from 137 balls as a highlight package.
This all meant coming into the last game, the Zimbabweans were really struggling. So having England - one of the best teams in that tournament - to play, and then only making 134, meant they would probably go home without a win.
Except that is not what happened, because what followed was perhaps the greatest spell by a chicken farmer in World Cup history.
And why I am thinking about this now? Because England have just asked Zimbabwe to tour them. The series will take place in 2025, and the last time Zimbabwe played England was in 2007.
Overall you will not be surprised to know that England has beaten Zimbabwe a lot. But wait a minute, what is going on at the start? Zimbabwe is doing something special. It is actually worth looking at just the 90s alone.
I’m cheating a little because I threw one in from early 2000. Remember Zimbabwe didn’t play their first Test until ’92, so this is not how you would expect to be against one of the biggest teams in the world.
Of course, it is worth remembering that England were absolutely terrible through much of the 90s. And so that played a part, but even then, they should not have lost to Zimbabwe, and certainly not so many times.
This is just bad. There is no way to talk yourself around this. Zimbabwe were entering cricket and hammering a team that started the entire thing.
In 1996/97, England toured Zimbabwe for five matches, three ODIs and two Tests. England did not win a single match. And of course, they found a way to embarrass themselves further when they were chasing 205.
They were smashing the ball everywhere, even though Zimbabwe were going all in on some of the most defensive bowling ever. Tossing the ball miles down legside with hugely defensive fields to try and hold on for a draw. But still, England got close until it came down to the final ball and England just couldn’t get home.
That is fine, they clearly dominated the match. And had the umpires been a little more friendly to them on the legside defensive bowling, they probably win. Then David Bumble Lloyd - England’s then coach - went on one of the weirder rants for a match that ended in a draw. It was a bit like England claiming they had won the Edgbaston Test, but more aggressive. An England leader doing that about a draw against Zimbabwe was not an ideal look.
England were playing a team that in their first 20 Tests had a single victory. Congratulations team, you almost beat a team that never beats anyone in Tests.
You look through England’s time against Zimbabwe and you keep finding fun things. Like this one of the most amazing quadrangular ODI series ever. It was not an ODI series though, because one of the teams was Australia A who only played List A. England went up against Australia A and Zimbabwe and ended up behind Australia A.
Why? Because Zimbabwe blew England away on the back of Grant Flower’s 84* from 143 balls. If you don’t know, Andy’s brother was one of the slowest-scoring players in cricket. So this is a truly special loss.
It wasn’t even the only time a Zimbabwean grinder squeezed out a victory against them. Alistair Campbell made 80 from 136 in the chase in 2000. Zimbabwe were a plucky team. They had the ability to stay with you, and England in this era almost never blew anyone away. And so Zimbabwe’s long order of guys who could chip around, a bunch of plucky medium-fast guys helping bowlers like Heath Streak and Paul Strang. For a long team, they were a team that was hard to beat.
Sadly, the only time Zimbabwean cricket is mentioned inside England any more is when pointing out Jimmy Anderson’s debut. Which on its own kind of shows how long his career has been. England just don’t play them at all anymore.
They actually played them an incredible amount from 2000 until 2004, and since then the only match was at a T20 World Cup in 2007. Not that Zimbabwe have always been a team since then, or had many of their best players around. But it’s a long time between games. Also worth mentioning is that India has not played them in a Test since 2005, and Australia since 2003. There are a few teams that just suddenly see them at World Cups and say, “Oh yeah, I remember them, South Africa’s friend, right?”.
Also, just for fun, it is worth remembering that when Anderson made his debut, his first over went for 18 runs. That batter was Dion Ebrahim, who averaged 22 in Tests with a strike rate of 39. It’s about the least likely person to take down a 600-wicket taker you will ever see.
There is one win here I need to explain. At the 2003 World Cup Zimbabwe beat England, and because of that, they made it through to the Super Sixers while England failed again. But Zimbabwe did not win the game.
Because England decided not to play because of safety concerns and also Robert Mugabe was around. This was after the Henry Olonga and Andy Flower protests. But also there were death threats from The Sons and Daughters of Zimbabwe directly to the England team.
But the real loss against England was back in 1992. Remember Zimbabwe made 134 all out.
But while that seems like a low total, it is worth noting that this was the first ODI ever in Albury, a small regional centre halfway between Melbourne and Sydney. It was an odd place for a World Cup match, and really a club pitch that would never host another international. The bounce was all over the shop.
Look at this wicket of Andy Flower. This was a man who averaged 50 in Tests, and this ball has come up off a length to smack him on the gloves. This was not a decent wicket. But 134 isn’t many, especially for a team that would go pretty close to winning the entire tournament.
At lunch for England player Geoffrey Boycott went up to the captain - and now coach - Dave Houghton to tell him how amateur Zimbabwe were.
However, no one seemed to have told the most famous chicken farmer in cricketing history that there was any pressure. Eddo Brandes was a big, barrel-chested fast bowler, who was famous for his sledging, build and lack of fitness. Had he not been so unfit, or lacking in confidence he would have arguably led the Zimbabwean pace attack for a decade. Well, this day he had his greatest moment. He took four wickets that left England at 43/5.
But the last one is the most interesting. The batter was Graeme Hick. Who was playing for England, because as a young Zimbabwe-born lad when he came through they were nowhere near good enough to play Tests. And not only was Hick Zimbabwean, but also a close personal friend of Eddo Brandes.
In many ways Hick - even if he ultimately didn’t become the player we all hoped for - is the most English Zimbabwean story. They were at this point in their cricket just another feeder team for England. It was this match that changed that.
They really had to fight it, Alec Stewart made 29 from 96, and a sick Neil Fairbrother fought hard before he was finally taken by an incredible Andy Flower catch. He is actually at leg slip when he takes him. Just remarkable work.
England needed 11 runs with two wickets in hand and were close when Richard Illingworth was run out. In the final over Gladstone small flicked one to short midwicket and Zimbabwe had won perhaps the most important match in their history.
This was the match that got Zimbabwe Test status, it was the one that changed their cricket’s future. In 2025 we may not see anything like this, even if they are at least looking like their second-best era is happening now. But to Zimbabwe, it isn’t about changing their future again. It’s just having the chance to play at all.