HAMBANTOTA – Only three hours could separate Zimbabwe from partying like the year 1999.
That was the last time they advanced out of the group stage of a multi-team tournament and one win in the World T20 will be enough to take them there again.
There is one problem though. That victory will have to come against either the hosts, Sri Lanka, or one of the favourites, South Africa.
Zimbabwe have beaten Sri Lanka’s A team and an experimental South Africa in the last few months but facing the full strength sides will be a different proposition.
They have the skill they need but not as much of the self-assurance as they had 13 years ago, when the country’s cricket landscape was very different. Two of the current coaching staff, Heath Streak and Grant Flower, were players. The team consisted of mostly white players and the sport itself was considered an elite activity.
A few years later, the nation was on the brink of change and cricket was pushed in that direction too. Aggressive transformation, the black armband protest, the worsening state of the economy and the crippling of the cricket structures all combined to bring the sport to its knees.
When it started to walk again, it was a different toddler that stood up.
Cricket is now a sport played by the majority and the squad reflects that.
Talented players from high-density (and largely low-income) areas have been sought out, found and embraced into the system to work with the previously advantaged.
Many of those who walked away have come back and are helping to rear Zimbabwe cricket.
The results have been painstakingly slow. A successful Test comeback against Bangladesh waned into defeats at the hands of Pakistan and New Zealand.
An almost entirely empty calendar in 2011 also did not help their progress.
They may be undercooked and face a huge task but this tournament is one of the rare occasions Zimbabwe have to show off their talent and they have enough to want to make a point.
Brendan Taylor is a capable leader, Vusi Sibanda has been playing for long enough to show what he has learned over years in the game as has Ray Price.
It would be dangerous to say the stalwart is on the brink of his last tournament because if Price has it his way, he will play forever.
Combined with the youth of Kyle Jarvis, Malcolm Waller and Foster Mutizwa, Zimbabwe are a balanced enough unit to play more than just two matches in the tournament but few expect them to.
Quite simply: they will need everything to go their way for three hours to take back good memories from Sri Lanka.
Experience will be Zimbabwe’s biggest asset with seven of their current squad having played T20 internationals from the 2007 edition of the tournament.
Of those battle hardened players, Hamilton Masakadza will be expected to lead the batting lineup and Chris Mpofu will be tasked with the same job with the ball.
Masakadza will hope that the form he found in the unofficial T20 tri-series in Harare is still with him. In that competition he was the top scorer, having scored more than a hundred runs than his nearest rival and compiling four consecutive half-centuries and a hundred in the warm-up match.
Mpofu has recently been overshadowed by the pace of Kyle Jarvis and the swing of Brian Vitori but his skill is still much needed and valued by Zimbabwe.
Having mastered the slower ball, a weapon that will come in handy on the surfaces in Sri Lanka, his variations will round off a dynamic attack.
Few international batsmen would have seen Richard Muzhange before this tournament but his reputation precedes him.
A toe-crusher in the Malinga-mould, although with a far more traditional action, Muzhange will be difficult to get away and may inflict some pain as well.
Jason Gillespie called him the best death bowler in Zimbabwe, having groomed and mentored him at the Mid-West Rhinos.
He has risen through the ranks quickly and although he is only 21 years old, has proven maturity.
Muzhange has yet to make his international debut and if the occasion does not overawe him, he could be Zimbabwe’s much-needed level head when the situation calls for it.
Like many teams who hover at the bottom of the rankings, when Zimbabwe get it right, they’re spectacular but when they get it wrong, they get it considerably wrong.
From middle-order collapses to an inability to haul back an opposition batting line-up, Zimbabwe’s main problem is that they struggle to recover when they are in trouble.
If the top three don’t set a reasonable platform, Zimbabwe are more likely to be skittled than post a score worth defending.
A full toss that get smacked for six is likely followed up with a short and wide delivery than a good length one.
Lack of confidence, more than lack of skill or technique, is to blame.
With little exposure to regular, high quality opposition, Zimbabwean players tend to question and then doubt themselves and their ability when facing top teams.
Alan Butcher has placed emphasis on building self-esteem, a tactic that worked early in Zimbabwe’s Test comeback but has waned since then.
Repeated defeats and small mistakes that compound have added to Zimbabwe’s woes and they will have to adopt a more carefree, nothing to lose attitude if they hope to overcome their mental block.
Best remembered for their shock victory over Australia in the inaugural competition in 2007, Zimbabwe’s tournament form has been nothing short of dismal.
Elton Chigumbura took three wickets and Taylor scored a belligerent 60 to give Zimbabwe an unexpectedly good start to what was then a new tournament.
But, they went on to lose to England by 50 runs at the same event.
In 2009, they did not participate.
The tournament was held in England and political pressure over the worsening situation in Zimbabwe meant that they pulled out of the competition.
By the next year Zimbabwe was back but their luck had not improved.
They lost both matches of the group stage but the margins were small — 14 runs and seven runs.
International cricket is sparse for Zimbabwe and they have not played a series since January.
Then, they were whitewashed in all formats in New Zealand, including the T20s, although they were most competitive in the shortest format.
Zimbabwe’s last four T20 series, dating back to October 2010, have been home and away against New Zealand, home against Pakistan and away against South Africa.
All the series have consisted of two matches and they have lost all of them 2-0.
Importantly, though, Zimbabwe won an unofficial T20 tri-series which featured Bangladesh and South Africa in Harare in June.
Zimbabwe last won an official T20 in February 2010, when they beat West Indies by 26 runs.
Overall, they have only won three of the 20 matches they have played.
Theirs is the worst win-loss record of all teams who have played more than five T20s, including Kenya, Canada and Scotland.
Only Bermuda have a worse record, having lost all of the three T20s they have played. — Cricinfo