6 March 2018

Zimbabwe: 26 Games, 36 Years and No Defeat for the Chevrons

An impressive 26-game unbeaten record knitted over 36 years, crafted on English shores and defended in the Netherlands and on the home front, faces its biggest test today when Zimbabwe plunge into a high-stakes ICC Cricket World Cup Qualifier against their nemesis Afghanistan at Queens Sports Club in Bulawayo.

It's a Group B showdown whose points carry their weight in gold with the Chevrons putting on the line a proud record, in which they have never lost a match in the ICC Cricket World Cup Qualifier, against the very team that has seemingly cast a spell over them and perfected the art of beating them with astonishing regularity in recent years.

If the opening day matches, with a menu that provided a monumental shock when the Afghans slumped to a seven-wicket defeat at the hands of Scotland, and centuries for Brendan Taylor and Sikandar Raza, were the appetiser, then today's confrontation between the wounded Asians and the hosts is the main dish of this group in the City of Kings.

Until the events on Sunday, when the brave Scots pummelled world number one ranked ODI bowler Rashid Khan into submission with figures of 1-68 on their way to a great victory, the Afghans were considered one of the favourites to capture the two tickets on offer for a place at the ICC Cricket World Cup in England next year.

Now, the landscape has dramatically changed and Afghanistan plunge into battle today not only fuelled by the desperation to bounce back but to face the hosts who have a frontier, and a proud record at this level of the game, to defend.

No country has ever beaten the Chevrons in a World Cup qualifier in history and their record, since captain Duncan Fletcher led them to a crushing 191-run victory over the United States in their first game in England in 1982, makes very good, if not intimidating, reading -- PLAYED 26, WON 24, ONE GAME ABANDONED WITHOUT A BALL BEING BOWLED AND THE OTHER BEING CALLED OFF AFTER JUST NINE OVERS.

But, then, no country has ever cast a spell on the Chevrons, in recent past, and dominated them with a streak of ruthlessness, which even borders on arrogance, like the Afghans who only last month cruised to a 4-1 comprehensive ODI series win over Zimbabwe in the United Arab Emirates.

Today, in the City that prides itself as the cathedral of Kings and Queens, one of them has to fall, that is if the weather conditions permit, and while Afghanistan are coming into this contest licking the wounds after their surprise seven-wicket defeat to the Scots, it hasn't escaped the game's sober analysts that the loss was built on a 208-run partnership, the best for any wicket by the victors.

These knocks don't happen every day in this game.

Neither has it escaped the same analysts that the Chevrons, who powered to a comprehensive win over Nepal on Sunday, are masters of inconsistency and one minute they are blowing hot, and winning an ODI series in Sri Lanka, and the then next minute they are blowing cold and being reduced to rank amateurs in the UAE by the Afghans.

All-rounder Raza has said a number of Chevrons are playing for their careers, with the World Cup in England probably their last hope for a dance with the game's heavyweights at this level, and this means they have to give it all they have, if not for themselves, then for a country that expects them to deliver in this mission.

"A few of us will be playing our last World Cup and I think the least we can do for each other is try and give everything we have in the tank for every game we play," Raza told the ICC website a few days ago.

"If it happens, at least we can leave Zimbabwe Cricket with our heads held high. My first goal is to leave this beautiful game in better shape that I found it in.

"Not just the Afghans, I think to me every match is a great match. If we qualify, that will change a lot of things for better, for us as individuals, for our families. The country is going through a positive change as well, that will give a lot of people, if not everyone, something to smile about, something to believe, something to hope for.

"God forbid, if things don't work out well, careers could also be on the line."

If there is something in their favour, then it has to be history, of course, not the history of their recent results against Afghanistan but the history of the results which successive bands of Zimbabwean cricketers have crafted in this qualifying tournament.

Remarkably, the Chevrons are unbeaten in these qualifiers dating back to their first dance with cricket at this level in England in June 1982 when they announced their arrival at the then ICC Cricket Trophy, before it assumed its current identity, with a crushing 191-run win over the United States.

They won seven of their nine games in that campaign, including the final against Bermuda, with two group matches against Gibraltar, abandoned before a ball had been bowled, and Canada, called off after just nine overs because of bad weather, surviving their juggernaut

Dave Houghton ended as the second best batsman at that tournament, with 308 runs in seven innings at an average of 51.33 and a highest score of 135, while the late Kevin Curran was in third place with 276 runs in his seven innings with a highest score of 126 not out.

Peter Rawson, the right am pacer took 14 wickets for the Chevrons at an average of 12.64, an economy rate of 2.59 and best figures of 4/34. Papua New Guinea, Hong Kong and the Netherlands, who are here for this ICC Cricket World Cup Qualifier, were also part of that show.

Four years later, the Zimbabweans returned to England as defending champions and won all their six group matches, powered to a 10-wicket win over Bermuda in the semi-final and successfully defended their crown with Rawson again the pick of their bowlers with 18 wickets.

In 1990, the show shifted to the Netherlands and Zimbabwe once again proved too good for the opposition as they won all their games, including an 84-run semi-final destruction of Bangladesh, while beating the hosts by six wickets in the final.

The tournament heralded the emergence of Andy Flower, who starred with the bat by scoring an unbeaten 69 in the final, to get the man-of-the-match award. The comprehensive win over Nepal on Sunday was Zimbabwe's 24th out of 26 games at this level of the game, with the only two matches they didn't win having fallen prey to the hostility of the weather conditions in England in 1982.

Their victims, along the way, include the United States (191 runs); Kenya (120 runs); Israel (nine wickets); Papua New Guinea (nine wickets); Hong Kong (eight wickets); Bermuda (five wickets); Bangladesh (144 runs); Kenya (seven wickets); Argentina (207 runs); Denmark (eight wickets); Malaysia (eight wickets); East Africa (10 wickets); Malaysia (nine wickets); Singapore (10 wickets) Canada (68 runs); Papua New Guinea (nine wickets); United States (seven wickets); Kenya (133 runs); Bangladesh (84 runs), the Netherlands (six wickets) and Nepal (116 runs).

But it's also fair to say none of that opposition compares to this Afghan side which enjoys a 62.50 percent success rate in head-to-head matches against the Zimbabweans in ODIs in which the Asians have won 15 while the Chevrons have won nine of their 24 contests. Today, the two rivals clock a quarter-of-a-century in ODI battles and, with former Chevrons coach Phil Simmons now in charge of the Asians, it all points to an intriguing battle.

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