There’s nothing like staring into a sky full of stars, and feeling as though you’re falling headfirst into the endless deep of the cosmos, to make you feel small and insignificant. India’s visits to Zimbabwe are, like a solar eclipse or the appearance of a comet, rare and spectacular occasions heralded on a similarly cosmic scale. That is, after all, the only scale that might accommodate both of these teams, who, while they may orbit within the same Full Member system, do so at opposite ends of the spectrum.

India burn with the brilliance of a billion fans. Zimbabwe bounce from series to series with a gentle lunar lightness, sometimes waxing, sometimes waning. India has the IPL, with its piles of cash and galaxy of stars. Zimbabwe has the NPL, for which the prize money is USD 10,000. The Indian men’s team are, you might say, cricket’s 1%. Zimbabwe are firmly wedged in its working class.

Indeed, cricket is an increasingly proletarian game in Zimbabwe, and while privilege will still get you somewhere, hard work and skill gets you further. Still, it’s been a long and often bumpy road for Zimbabwe’s cricketers. For many of them, that road started in dusty and dirt-poor places like Highfield, or Chitungwiza, far from Harare’s leafy green northern suburbs.

In just the last few years, Zimbabwe’s players have endured suspension, missed World Cups, Covid-19, a coup, cancelled tours and pay cuts. Thankfully, the days of perennial salary delays and money worries do appear to be gone under the current Zimbabwe Cricket administration, which has cleared the debts that nearly sunk the game in the country.

But, like all other Zimbabweans, the cricketers still have to deal with queues for essentials, shortages, inflation and the country’s unhinged financial system – a system that is utterly indecipherable to outsiders and defies explanation. After a long day in the field, Zimbabwean cricketers still have to drive home on roads as puckered and potholed as Ryan Burl’s old shoes (before Puma slid into his DMs). And they won’t know whether the lights will be on at home when they get there. Harare residents regularly endure electricity blackouts which can last for days at a time.

If you have running water in your home, chances are it comes from a borehole. Indeed, there are parts of the capital that have not had running municipal water this millennium. Working streetlights are exceedingly rare. That makes driving at night a white-knuckle affair, but on the flip side there’s very little light pollution and you can get lost in that sky full of stars, just by looking up, in the middle of a city of more than two million people. It is perhaps contradictory and counter-intuitive, but there’s a sort of ramshackle glory to this place. An undeniable beauty. And whatever you may have read about Zimbabwe, should you ever visit, it will not be what you expect.

Zimbabwe is a country teeming with such contradictions. Here’s one more: in a Zimbabwean context, the senior men’s cricket team, however humble their beginnings, and whatever hurdles they may leap in their daily lives, are better off than the vast majority of Zimbabweans. Being a Full Member nation, they are better off than most Associate cricketers too. Nevertheless, they still inhabit a different cricketing universe to that of the vaunted Indians.

Take, for instance, KL Rahul and Innocent Kaia. They’re both 30-year-old, top-order batters, with ODI averages in the 40s. When Kaia scored his maiden hundred against Bangladesh earlier this month, he mimicked Rahul’s shut-out-the-noise celebration. Their lives off the field, however, could scarcely be more different. Rahul, alone, has about as many followers on Instagram as there are people in Zimbabwe. Sikandar Raza is Zimbabwe’s most popular cricketer, on and off social media. His followers could just about fill the Narendra Modi Stadium. Kaia’s would not fill one stand.

India’s cricketers count their pay checks in crores and millions; Zimbabweans in the thousands. In terms of match fees, India’s players would earn about 10 times more than the amount the Zimbabweans are paid to play. The life of an Indian cricket star, with its drip and shine and Lamborghinis and Balenciaga, appears to the average Zimbabwean cricketer as something so alien that he may as well be looking at someone from another planet.

Still, it’s not all about the money, is it? At least not yet. But if we’re talking dollars and cents, it’s worth mentioning that you can watch the NPL for free, as you can any domestic cricket in Zimbabwe. For internationals, your wallet would be USD 1 lighter upon entrance, with charges going up by a few bucks for access to the more exclusive areas within the ground, such as the Centurion Pub at Harare Sports Club, or the Grandstand at Queens.

Fans, meanwhile, shelled out anything from USD 140 to as much as USD 650 to watch India play West Indies in Florida earlier this month. That seems a very bougie amount of money to pay for watching a game. It’s just one more sign of a widening inequality gap in international cricket – the game is becoming more, not less, stratified.

There’s also a price to pay for all that opulence. Virat Kohli has spoken about the suffocating – and sometimes frightening – trappings of fame, and a Zimbabwean could never know the pressure that accompanies being at the head of a queue a billion people strong. And so it is that the Zimbabweans have something the Indians do not. They are somewhat well known in the urban areas, but Zimbabwean cricketers get to live very normal lives.

On previous tours, visiting Indian journalists have been astonished by the access, the closeness, that Zimbabwe allows. Yes, you can stand a couple of metres away from the nets while the players are in there. Stick around after a net session or a game, and you’ll probably see a couple of the Zimbabweans ambling through the pub to play some pool or meet up with friends. Before the first ODI on India’s current trip, there were a couple of Zimbabwean fans (and journalists) sharing selfies snapped with India’s captain at Harare Sports Club. There were no baying crowds behind them. Just an empty field. It’s all very laid back.

What is less likely to be laid back is the cricket. There is pride at stake, and that’s something you can’t put a price on. And what’s more, cricket is a great leveller – perhaps one of the greatest – and though the cricketing world revolves around an Indian team that burns with a solar brightness, if you’re in the right place at the right time, you’ll see the moon devour the sun. Zimbabwe will know that even the most celebrated, and richest, teams can be eclipsed.

Source: Liam Brickhill/ ESPNCricinfo


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