You inquire about a friend’s well-being and you’re informed that the police are on a lookout for him in relation to a mobile-phone snatching incident.
This could be normal in a country gripped with serious economic challenges and a high rate of unemployment. But when the ‘thief’ is a former international cricketer still in his 20s, you finally realise how a once-revered sport has been dragged to the brink.
This man is just one of several players, at an age where they should be at or reaching their peak, disillusioned and traumatised by events they never saw coming, in a sport they thought was their way out of poverty.
Another former player, good enough in his teens to be one of only two blacks in a provincial first-class side, spends his day wandering around downtown Harare or in the company of drug dealers – his friends – at a run-down apartment block occupied by prostitutes.
This is the sad tale of cricket in Zimbabwe where an entire generation of players – the majority with no other qualification than the ability to hurl and hit a cricket ball – has been forced into premature retirement by the dire financial situation.
Zimbabwe cricketers were well known for their pampered lifestyles but years of political unrest in the country, exacerbated an economy already under pressure, had its say. Zimbabwe lurched from one political crisis to another and the big cricketing nations boycotted tours to the country on moral and political grounds.
Salaries were cut significantly, of players and staff. ZC reportedly owes a bank almost $18m. Repeated promises were made to call off the strikes but the money was still missing. On the eve of Zimbabwe’s return from self-imposed Test exile in 2011, the former captain Tatenda Taibu gathered local and foreign press and accused his employers of ‘painting a house that was about to fall’.
Before a Test against Pakistan last year, players threatened to go on strike. They were convinced to change their mind. And they went on to beat Misbah-ul-Haq’s men. But the promises proved shallow yet again. Now, there is a group of mostly black players who decided that enough was enough – boycotting domestic matches and as well as the 2014 World Twenty20 if outstanding dues were not cleared.
They need to come up with a financial plan so that they continue to play players and staff consistently
“Zimbabwe Cricket has been facing cash-flow challenges,” ZC Chairman Chingoka told Al Jazeera. “We have to overcome loss-making tours and keep underwriting the franchises and the development programme. There was also the curtailed Indian tour which had to be cut from seven ODIs to five and we lost out in television revenue.”
The strike was something ZC had not expected. It turned to the ICC, which answered the call by releasing a $3m loan. But the players would only resume training once the money hits their bank accounts.
“We empathise with their hardship. We take pride in the welfare of all our employees but this situation was beyond our control. Over the last decade, we’ve had loss-making tours and our home series will only be profitable when we host England, India and, to a lesser extent, Australia.”
The players and staff have received their outstanding dues but former captain and coach Heath Streak believes the issues will crop up again and he remains concerned about the future of the game in Zimbabwe.
“It’s going to be difficult because this a short term thing,” said Streak, who now runs a private academy in his hometown of Bulawayo. “The money will go towards serving debt. They need to come up with a financial plan so that they continue to play players and staff consistently.”
Streak, Zimbabwe’s bowling coach until mid-2013, also found it difficult to work with players in the circumstances that prevailed.
“It’s difficult to motivate players that are not being paid for their efforts. The problem lay in the false promises. Guys were being told things that weren’t true. For me, that was the disappointing part. A lot of them were patient so the ZC ought to tell the truth.”
The future is being discussed, according to a senior player, who confirmed that the players were locked in a meeting with the union to chalk out a plan moving forward.
“We’ve not come up with a decision yet but if the delay happens again, I won’t be surprised if there is another boycott,” he said. “It has pulled us back in terms of preparation for the World Twenty20.”
While Zimbabwe are not trophy contenders for the event in Bangladesh, the sorry state of cricket in a team that once comprised Andy Flower, Streak, Neil Johnson, the Strange brother and Alistair Campbell is in dire straits through no fault of their own.
The optimism on Chingoka’s face remains a surprise given the situation.
“The future looks bright for Zimbabwe cricket,” he assures.