Hours after the first rumblings in Harare that would result in the coup that removed former President Robert Mugabe from power, a former Zimbabwean cricketer was asked whether unrest had also spread to Bulawayo. He laughed, “It takes time for anything that starts off in Harare to reach Bulawayo.” Even as roadblocks cocooned key government buildings in the capital, armoured vehicles swarmed the streets, and soldiers cordoned off the Zimbabwean Parliament, life in Bulawayo carried on as normal, with almost no additional military presence in the country’s second-largest city. Just because something happened in Harare doesn’t mean it’ll also happen in Bulawayo.
That may be a cursed inconvenience most of the time, but just four months after that coup, another event took place in Harare that Bulawayo might have been glad it didn’t have to witness. At the Harare Sports Club, Zimbabwe needed to beat UAE, the weakest side at the 2018 Men’s World Cup Qualifier, to advance to the 50-over World Cup the following year, which was supposed to be an existential lifeline for cricket in the country. UAE scored 235, and Harare geared up for the party that would surely follow the game. Rain hit, and a controversial DLS application turned a comfortable chase into a stiff challenge. A traumatised crowd watched as Zimbabwe fluffed their lines and tumbled out of the race for the 2019 World Cup.
Half a decade on, those haunting scenes snaked their way to Bulawayo. Zimbabwe’s 2023 World Cup qualification was progressing like a dream. They had dispatched Nepal and Netherlands, before upsetting West Indies and mauling USA by a world-record margin. They edged past Oman and they stood on the cusp – needing one win from their last two matches – of a ticket to cricket’s biggest tournament, to be held in the sport’s biggest market.
No one dared say it, but this was exactly how Zimbabwe’s last qualification campaign had gone. And so, while Zimbabweans exulted in the triumphs, no one was celebrating just yet. Moments after the win over West Indies, I texted my colleague in Zimbabwe, Firdose Moonda, that I couldn’t wait to see how they would find a way not to qualify even from this position of extreme advantage. I was only half joking then, and it doesn’t seem funny at all now.
There’s very little as joyful as a younger sibling suddenly afforded a privilege the eldest was denied. And so as Bulawayo geared up for the party Harare never had five years ago, it was determined to exult in its good fortune. The crowds were as packed as they’ve ever been at the Harare Sports Club, and perhaps even more boisterous. There’s nothing quite like playing cricket at a small, packed venue where everyone understands, lives and breathes cricket. In that way, Bulawayo can hold its own against any city in the world.
But Scotland are no UAE, and harbour World Cup ambitions of their own. The ICC’s decision, in its infinite wisdom, to keep the World Cup restricted to ten teams for the second successive edition means there’s an invariably macabre air to these Qualifiers, turning them into something like a cricketing Hunger Games with only two survivors left standing and many good candidates slain along the way for no discernible reason. The teams outside the top eight don’t need too much extra motivation to turn up, but as the scraps that fall from the big table shrink further, the fighting becomes ever more frenzied, the consequences of the slightest misstep ever more dire.
And boy, have Scotland scrapped. They started the tournament with a barely credible final-ball victory against Ireland. They swept UAE and Oman before giving Sri Lanka a bit of a scare, and following up with a trouncing of West Indies.
A Zimbabwe win would have eliminated Scotland, and elimination is an existential crisis. Zimbabwe’s exclusion from the 2019 World Cup saw them enter such financial trouble that they nearly dissolved completely, and were suspended by the ICC the following year.
As Zimbabwe won the toss and bowled first, the memories of that hurt and those lost years powered them. They kept Scotland on a leash for 45 of the 50 overs, but the moment they let their discipline waver, they found their noses bloodied. A priceless Michael Leask cameo – 48 off 34 balls – helped Scotland take 55 runs in the last five overs to set Zimbabwe 235 to win. It was the exact score UAE put up five years ago, but no one was spooked just yet.
This may have been a home crowd, but even they couldn’t will Bulawayo’s weather into submission. There was a nip in the air and overcast skies. Chris Sole couldn’t have asked for better bowling conditions if this match was taking place in his native Aberdeen, and the menace he posed Zimbabwe became clear from ball one. Joylord Gumbie, who’s had such a difficult tournament that name feels increasingly like a misnomer, nicked off to an awayswinger first up, and Scotland pierced Zimbabwe’s skin for the first time.
As Sole hits speeds in excess of 90mph/145kph, a rarity on the Associate circuit, Zimbabwe’s best had few answers. Craig Ervine‘s defence was breached by a worldie of an inswinger from around the wicket. Even Sean Williams, whose form this tournament has placed him among the ranks of the divine, was dragged back down to earth as Sole went over the wicket and knocked back his stumps with one that swung away at pace. The dreaded feeling of looming disappointment was beginning to dawn on Bulawayo. There was only greyness; there were no blue skies around the corner.
Zimbabwe did what Zimbabwe have done to their fans for a long time now; they dragged them through the torment of hope before pushing them into the arms of devastation. Sikandar Raza and Ryan Burl wrested the momentum back briefly, and a lovely little innings from Wessly Madhevere even gave his side the upper hand. Burl at the other end looked impregnable, and as Zimbabwe got to 165 for 5, it looked like the ghosts of 2018 might finally be exorcised. In Zimbabwe, hope is the last thing you lose, and this crowd found it alive and kicking within them.
But Scotland broke that partnership and held their nerve as Zimbabwe lost theirs. The pressure was too suffocating, the stakes too high, and, even for a heroic late surge from Burl, the target just too far away. The dying stages of the match played out like those horror films where you realise the demon you thought you’d killed off is still very much around. Spent, Zimbabwe finally collapsed, consigned to another half decade in ODI wilderness, 2023 simply adding to the heap of cricketing heartaches they have endured.
Zimbabwe cricket is in a significantly better place than it was in 2018. The atmosphere in the dressing room is credited by most players as better than they’ve ever experienced. Since Dave Houghton was appointed coach, both the results and the style of cricket Zimbabwe play have reenergised a country that stood on the brink of ruin just a few years ago. This is a far more recoverable setback than 2018, but you’d struggle to convince anyone of that on the night.
The Harare game was clearly on Ervine’s mind at the post-match presentations, but he did have the awareness to put this result in perspective, and distinguish it from what happened against the UAE.
“It’s always nice to put those demons from 2018 behind us and had we gotten over the line today, nobody would have been asking about that,” he said. “But unfortunately, we didn’t get over the line. Williams has been fantastic and we can take a lot of positives away. I’m extremely proud of the guys, and for the amount of work and effort. We’re really thankful for the crowd that has come and supported us, especially over the last few weeks. I think we are playing a very exciting brand of cricket and that is the reason the crowd are coming out to support us.”
Tendai Chatara, the last man to be cleaned up, was also there in 2018, as were four of his team-mates from Tuesday’s match. Most have been open about how much hurt that day caused, and how it’s lingered for so long. It is a pain they will share with millions of Zimbabweans who experienced both 2018 and 2023. Redemption was illusory, and that cusp was only a precipice.
Bulawayans might have prepared for a celebration on Tuesday. Instead, they hold Harare in a collective embrace to share a grief both understand so perfectly well. Suddenly, Harare and Bulawayo do not seem that far apart after all.