LONDON – The top echelons of international cricket are a famously small club.
All told, they comprise just 12 Full Members, even after Afghanistan’s and Ireland’s ascension in 2017.
So, any rivalry that is curtailed becomes more keenly felt: above all, that between India and Pakistan, who have not played bilateral cricket against each other since 2013.
And yet, among the old group of 10 Full Members – all those bar Afghanistan and Ireland – there is one bilateral engagement that has been halted for more than twice as long.
As, with India and Pakistan, the reason started out as politics; now, it is just accepted as fact.
It has been 16 years since England last played Zimbabwe in a bilateral series.
The reasons for stopping were embodied by a tour as brief as it was miserable in 2004.
Twenty-one months after boycotting their World Cup match in the country, England made a perfunctory stop for four one-day internationals.
Zimbabwe, hollowed out by player departures, were thrashed four times in funereal contests played out amid protests against England touring
In 2008, the UK Government instructed the England and Wales Cricket Board to cut ties formally with Zimbabwe, who had been due to tour England for both a bilateral series and the T20 World Cup in 2009.
Instead, Zimbabwe were paid their full participation fee for the World Cup as a thanks for not participating.
Ever since, Zimbabwe have remained out of sight, and out of mind, for English cricket.
Both the politics, and cricket, have changed since England last visited Zimbabwe.
The UK Government has no qualms about bilateral cricket between Scotland and Zimbabwe.
Earlier this year, Derbyshire became the first English cricket team to tour Zimbabwe since Michael Vaughan’s side in 2004.
Yet, there remain no plans at all for bilateral cricket between England and Zimbabwe; given the Future Tours Programme has been ratified until 2023, that would take the hiatus in bilateral matches to 19 years.
What started out as driven by politics is now driven by expediency.
England already have a saturated calendar; they simply have no need for matches against such an unlucrative opponent.
England’s position is decidedly exceptional.
Every other Full Member has played Zimbabwe since 2016.
The contrast between the other members of the Big Three is particularly stark.
Australia toured Zimbabwe for limited-overs series, in 2014 and 2018 – and Zimbabwe even secured a three-wicket ODI win on the first tour.
India have toured Zimbabwe four times since 2010, with Zimbabwe winning a T20 apiece on both the last two tours.
Both Australia and India will also play Zimbabwe in a three-game series in the ODI Super League.
Hosting England – even for, say, a brief T20 series before England tour South Africa – would be a fillip to Zimbabwe’s status, fixture list and financial footing, and, therefore, for the prospects of the best Zimbabwean cricketers continuing to play for Zimbabwe.
The broader point is that the health of international cricket depends on all nations displaying the communitarian spirit exhibited by those who braved onerous Covid-19 restrictions to tour England last summer.
If they do return, England will find a much-improved side compared with the ragtag bunch they last encountered in Zimbabwe, with the exciting young talents Wesley Madhevere and Blessing Muzarabani complementing the experienced axis of Brendan Taylor, Sean Williams and Sikandar Raza.
Earlier this month these players secured an ODI victory in Pakistan.
It was a heartening moment for all those who crave a stronger and deeper international game, and remember when Zimbabwe – who routed England 3-0 in an ODI series in 1996-97 and toppled India and South Africa in the 1999 World Cup – were part of exactly that.
For all the goodwill caused by England’s resumption of touring Pakistan, the ECB might reflect that now is the time to return to a nation from which they have been absent even longer. – The Telegraph