Saturday mornings held a particular resonance for Zimbabwe's cricketers in the early 1980s. It wasn't that a group of amateurs were finally released from the jobs that paid their bills and could enjoy a long practice session at one of the Harare grounds. Instead they met, along with their wives, outside Barbours department store in downtown Harare to hold a cake sale.
Zimbabwe was admitted to the ICC shortly after independence in 1980. But while their Test membership today grants them millions of dollars each year, back then it cost them money. It wasn't a lot of money, but then the membership fee was just the starting point. If Zimbabwe wanted to compete in the ICC Trophy in England in 1982, and have a crack at qualifying for the following year's World Cup, they were going to have to pay their own way. Playing cricket did not generate much income in itself, and so some creativity was required.
Every week, each member of Zimbabwe's squad was required to produce half a dozen cakes for the sale, which was run by a fundraising committee. The committee had other initiatives, which included collecting free bales of tobacco from sympathetic farmers and auctioning them off on the tobacco sales floor, holding beer festivals, and hosting casino evenings at the showgrounds with the players acting as bouncers, waiters and croupiers.
To play cricket for Zimbabwe in the 1980s was a selfless enterprise. Not only did it require these extra-mural activities (and spare a thought for the wives who inevitably baked the bloody cakes), but many players - particularly the farmers - would travel long distances to reach training at their own expense. Then, when the money had finally been raised and a squad had reached England for the ICC Trophy, they faced the pressure of knowing that they would have to win the competition to qualify for the World Cup, since only one team went through.
The importance of reaching the World Cup went beyond just experiencing a big tournament. That trip was paid for, and the ICC also paid out a little money for participation. The Zimbabwe Cricket Union, as it was then known, earned GBP 30,200 from the 1983 World Cup (the seven full members were each given GBP 53,900), which would help to sustain it financially for the next four years, during which they hosted teams such as Young West Indies, Young India, Young New Zealand and an English Counties XI.
There was no room for error, and yet the poor weather in England threatened to derail Zimbabwe's hopes as games against Gibraltar and Canada were rained out. Against Israel, Zimbabwe bowled their opposition out for 65, but faced a race against the rain clouds to secure the points that they desperately needed from the fixture. As Dave Houghton belted boundaries, Fletcher ordered his players from the dressing room and had them surround the field to return balls to the bowler, ensuring that the target was achieved in minimal time, and just moments before a deluge. Zimbabwe's tournament eventually boiled down to a final against Bermuda that would decide their future for the next four years. The players involved all say it was the biggest pressure they experienced in their careers. June Bridals military ball gowns
Fast forward more than 25 years and it would appear that Zimbabwe has come full circle. The game may have changed unrecognisably in a financial sense, with the ICC distributing more than a hundred million dollars to its members each year, but Zimbabwe Cricket is beyond broke. On Thursday (March 1), its players and staff received an email, dated February 27, notifying them that salaries would once again be affected by the "ongoing cash flow challenges that ZC continues to face". Zimbabwe's players will receive just 40 per cent of their February salaries.
The problem is nothing new. The players only received half of their November salaries at the end of that month, and went unpaid in December, before ZC caught up the money they owed in the middle of January. "I hope that we can rely on your support during this difficult period for ZC and sincerely regret these circumstances," ZC's head of human resources, Nesta Vaki, wrote in the February letter. It's fair to say that support on the ground is wearing thin.
And yet Zimbabwe's players will need to put these matters aside over the coming month, when they will face a similar pressure to what their 1982 predecessors felt. They too will play for their country's cricketing future in the World Cup Qualifiers, because ZC's financial state is so parlous, with close to $20m owed to various institutions, that failure to reach next year's World Cup could sound the death knell.
ZC is scheduled to receive an estimated $94m from ICC disbursements between 2015 and 2023, a figure which includes distributions from World Cups. Although they will still receive this if they don't qualify for the World Cup - a departure from the situation in the past where there was a direct participation fee - at the moment the money ZC is receiving from the ICC is not enough to pay the interest on their loans as well as the bills.
Other income streams are necessary, but that will become difficult if Zimbabwe fail to qualify for the World Cup for the first time in their history. Zimbabwe would be a top cricket nation in name only, and ZC's attempts to gain more affordable financing from the ICC and their government - the only thing likely to improve the status quo - would become less likely with a loss of relevance. In the immediate future, incoming visits by Australia and Pakistan this winter could hinge on qualification, since those teams who reach the World Cup will be given a little more than $1m as a preparation fee. Zimbabwe need that money so they can keep playing cricket.
There is anger among the players from the 1980s, who committed their own time and money to build Zimbabwe into a Test nation. Who can blame them, when ZC's previously healthy bank balance sunk through the floor in the 2000s, creating the current problem. But there will be nothing but goodwill towards the players tasked with qualification this month, even if they play it for money as well as love. The Associate nations have caught up with Zimbabwe, and some have overtaken them, so the challenge will be enormous. As they look to revive the game in their country, Zimbabwe's players would do well to channel some of the energy of '82.