Demise of the Super League has left smaller countries abandoned and without fixtures against the big guns
An old line relayed to me, credited to a former Australian administrator – possibly apocryphal but perfectly apt – has rattled around my head over the past week as Zimbabwe played their first series in that country for nearly two decades.
The quip goes, when Zimbabwe were granted access to the big kid’s table where Test cricket is permitted in 1992, he supported this for them “in a non-playing sense”. Knock yourselves out lads, just not against the big boys.
Well, the Chevrons made the most of playing in the third and final one-dayer of their series on Saturday, knocking off Aaron Finch’s side after rolling the hosts for 141 in 31 overs. That’s a team of players with barely any name recognition beyond their homeland denying some of the most feted superstars around; their first international victory against Australia in Australia. Special stuff, made possible thanks to a haul of five for 10 from the leg-spinner Ryan Burl, who last year become famous on Twitter for posting a plea for better boots.
Against the backdrop of well-founded existential fears over the future of the global game, this was a feelgood story for those interested in the growth of the sport in a country that has ridden endless bumps since its golden era at the turn of the century. But that was until taking a closer look at what’s ahead. When doing so, it becomes painfully clear the probability of Australia playing Zimbabwe at any time in the future – outside major tournaments – is next to zero. Why? The abolition of the World Cup Super League.
No judgment if that doesn’t mean anything to you – the competition, to the extent it is one, has failed to capture the imagination since its initiation in 2020. But what it has done, quietly and successfully, is produce fixtures that otherwise would never have happened – Zimbabwe’s in Australia is a case in point. It bound the five-time world champions to make it work.
The Super League was dreamed up to provide an organising structure for ODIs played by the top 13 nations between World Cups, each playing eight opponents in a three-match series over three years to facilitate qualification for that event. But with the pinnacle 50-over bonanza swelling from 10 to 14 teams in 2027 (a great thing) the International Cricket Council has ditched it, arguing it won’t be required because 13 already goes into 14.
The collateral damage – smaller, developing nations – was clear in the recently released Future Tours Programme. Sure enough, over the scheduled period of five years, Zimbabwe will not enjoy a single match, in any of the three formats, against Australia or England.
Their relationship with the latter – who last played Zimbabwe in 2004 – is fascinating, chequered and endlessly complicated. Naturally, as a former British colony, there’s an ingrained wariness that goes well beyond the field of play. From a cricket perspective, it didn’t help that England’s heavy hitters tried their best to ensure Zimbabwe wouldn’t graduate to full member status in the 1980s – at a time they were recruiting Graeme Hick.
But through the 1990s, Zimbabwe stunned Graham Gooch’s team at a World Cup and towelled up Mike Atherton’s three-zip in the ODIs from their first full tour, following the “we flippin’ murdered ‘em” draw at Bulawayo.
Then there was the 2003 World Cup, a sequence of events that is barely plausible now when Nasser Hussain nearly quit the captaincy due to the treatment he received when, quite reasonably, he pulled his team from a World Cup fixture as the country spiralled under the murderous Robert Mugabe regime.
Zimbabwe did visit later that year (Jimmy Anderson’s Test debut) and there was a return to Harare in the next (Kevin Pietersen’s ODI bow) but the relationship from that point was as good as sunk when Hussain was, in his words, “hung out to dry” by, well, everyone.
Sign up to The Spin
Subscribe to our cricket newsletter for our writers' thoughts on the biggest stories and a review of the week’s action
As Zimbabwe’s presence diminished in England and Australia, coverage of their journey has been reserved mostly for when they’ve lost their way – a couple of ICC bans, the latest in 2019 for government meddling, or missing out on qualification for that year’s World Cup.
But there’s a correlation to their improved fortunes since the initiation of the Super League. This year, Zimbabwe won entry to next month’s T20 World Cup in Australia, their first trip to a major ICC event since 2016. A series win against Bangladesh on the road, a commendable performance against India and now saluting over Australia in Townsville (without their best quick), bolsters the view that green shoots are no illusion.
From an England perspective, the political minefield that denied further engagement through the Mugabe years is no longer after the coup to remove him in 2017. Reluctantly accepting the men’s schedule is now inked in to 2027, however, doesn’t mean the seeds can’t be sown in other ways between times to help get the two teams playing again.
With that, a positive thought before signing off. While it is a further frustration that Zimbabwe were the only full members left out of the first iteration of the women’s Future Tours Programme – also released in August – they’ve recently issued their female players full-time contracts. They are late to this party but determined to catch up as quickly as possible. With a touring schedule that’s fundamentally less chaotic than the men, this is something that should be facilitated.
In Zimbabwe, there’s a commonly used response to adversity: make a plan. The threat posed by the end of the Super League means they’ll soon need a new one to keep moving in the right direction. If those running English cricket are interested in being good global citizens through this next challenging period, there’s no better time for them to do their bit to help this country make up for so much lost time and commit to charting a course to taking the field alongside them again.
This is an extract from the Guardian’s weekly cricket email, The Spin. To subscribe, just visit this page and follow the instructions.