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Zimbabwe eyes return from Test exile

cricket Updated: Oct 26, 2010 10:52 IST

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The crack of bats on balls at the deserted Harare Sports Club rouses rare bursts of cheers from a pitch-side pub as Zimbabwe hosts their first New Zealand cricketing visitors in five years.

The mood at the empty ground was a shadow of the festive crowd that 18 years ago rooted for Zimbabwe's international Test debut. But the muted 'A' match signals a milestone in the country's march out of cricket exile.

"If it was, say, three years ago, it would never have even been discussed," said commentator and Zimbabwe Cricket staffer Deon du Plessis on the thawing of relations toward the long-blackballed host nation.

"If somebody had mentioned the word 'Zimbabwe' they would have said we don't want to go there, we don't want them here."

New Zealand's ending of their boycott on the heels of an Irish tour follows Zimbabwe Cricket's courtship of western cricket nations as it plans a return to the Test arena after voluntarily pulling out 15 years ago.

"Certainly in May we will play a Test match," Zimbabwe Cricket managing director Ozias Bvute told AFP.

"We've said we'll go back next year and we've said we're going to responsibly approach Test cricket and we're going to try and play one-off Tests over the next few years in Zimbabwe."

Zimbabwe's political turmoil dramatically spilt over into the sport with an infamous 2003 World Cup black-armband protest for the "death of democracy" under President Robert Mugabe, the sport's patron.

A couple of years later, authorities shelved the squad's five-day status after a strike by the top, mainly white, players over team selection.

"They seem to think we were kicked out, but that isn't the case," stressed Bvute.

"We were choosing our team from 15 people and when we lost the bulk of them we were no longer able to field a national team."

To tackle this, young black cricketers and local franchises have been targeted, with former Test stars like Heath Streak and Alistair Campbell returning to management posts.