ZIMBABWE'S victory over Pakistan in the first Test last week may be partly put down to the internal troubles which the hosts are going through. But at the same time, there is no taking away from a team which was once considered the minnows of Test cricket. They now have three Test victories and are sure to get to double figures soon if they continue playing with the application they have shown to date.
The Zimbabweans have benefitted to some extent by the presence of some talented players who decided that they would never get a chance to represent South Africa given the abundance of talent in that country and made their way to Harare instead. Neil Johnson is a case in point. But that alone would not account for the way Zimbabwe have grown in stature after their induction into the elite ranks of Test-playing countries.
Zimbabwe have the motivation and this can be attributed to the fact that a good many of them are still part-time players. They are hungry for recognition and eager to show the world that they are a force to be reckoned with. It was not so long ago that many of the so-called top Test playing countries would accord countries like Sri Lanka just a single Test. That attitude has now disappeared after the Lankans made it clear that they were no jokers in the pack.
Of the 32 Tests Zimbabwe have played to date, they have drawn 14 and lost 15; their three wins have been against Pakistan (one each at home and away) and against India. Their one-day record is flattered by the wins against Kenya and Bangladesh; they have played 112 matches, won 26, lost 80, tied four and seen two end inconclusively.
Unfortunately, given the crowded international cricket calendar, Zimbabwe are yet to play a Test against either Australia or the West Indies. They will take on the former some time soon but a tilt against the men from the Caribbean is still not on the cards. They need the experience of playing against all the others to develop. Even South Africa weren't the most confident side in the world when they made their return to world cricket after years in the wilderness but they have played year in and year out after that and regained their standing as the second-best team in the world after Australia.
Teams like Bangladesh and Kenya which are on the fringes and have seen politics destroy some of the initial motivation which they seemed to have can learn from the Zimbabweans. Zimbabwe have never been a high-profile team; on many occasions, they have been invited to a one-day tournament merely because they were not engaged elsewhere. This has happened many times in Sharjah. But on every occasion, they have at least dished out one surprise and proved that they are no pushovers.
The killer instinct which is seen in abundance in teams like the big four is yet to develop. There are many matches in which Zimbabwe have held the upper hand only to fail at the final hurdle. That will take more experience. And experience will only be achieved by playing more matches and certainly more often. Come the new millennium, this team should be ready to make its mark in the international arena as one which has served out its apprenticeship well.