Zimbabwe comfortable with 'underdogs' tag
It used to be that Zimbabwe carried the tag of 'underdog' into their engagements with every Test nation, bar Bangladesh. In the last five years, however, the two teams have moved in opposite directions and those roles have been well and truly reversed.
Bangladesh beat Zimbabwe for the first time in Harare in March 2004, but Zimbabwe went on to win that rain-ravaged series 2-1 and it was not until Bangladesh's first Test victory over the Zimbabweans, at Chittagong in January 2005, that the worm really turned.
Now, leading his team to Bangladesh for their fourth bilateral series against them in less than two years, Zimbabwe captain Elton Chigumbura insists he is comfortable to let the hosts carry the burden of being singled out as favourites for whom anything less than a convincing series win will be deemed a failure. "Definitely they [Bangladesh] are playing well at home. We are the underdogs but we just need to play our best cricket," he said.
"Bangladesh played well against a better team recently, so they are expected to win. So we are not under pressure. All we have to do is play good cricket and concentrate on our own team and not focus too much on what Bangladesh is doing -the focus is our team. I just need to carry off from where I left off the last time I was here. I will be positive, the team will be even more positive this time; hopefully we will play good cricket and win games."
Similarly, Zimbabwe's coach Alan Butcher conceded that a buoyant Bangladesh, having just handed New Zealand a 4-0 thrashing, will be tough to beat at home but a measure of Zimbabwean success is far from unthinkable. "We will approach every game with the intention to win and if we do that well enough indeed we will win the series," he explained. "I am not going to sit here and promise that we will win this series because Bangladesh will be feeling pretty confident as well. As we went to South Africa we did not really feel we would win the series but it is a lot different here in Bangladesh."
The Zimbabweans' warm-up for this series was the Stanbic Bank 20 Series, a week-long Twenty20 tournament featuring the five domestic franchises - each with several overseas players on their books. Prior to that, in October they travelled to South Africa where, despite losing every game, there were signs of positive development; particularly from the batsmen.
"We got some good reviews from our performances in South Africa," said Butcher. "However we did not win any games and we have come here to play some good cricket and win some games. We've prepared well and taken a look at the conditions and it is going to be totally different from those in South Africa and we have prepared for them as well."
Zimbabwe, for several years ostracised from mainstream international cricket, have become very used to playing Bangladesh in the last half-decade. They have met in no less than nine series in that time, with Bangladesh winning all but one of those. Despite their abysmal win record in those encounters, both Zimbabwe's captain and coach insist that the experience gained over the years will stand the team in good stead - and the current tour will only help preparations for next year's World Cup.
"So far it is pretty comfortable," Butcher said of his team's adjustment to the tropical conditions. "It is warm in Zimbabwe at the moment, so heat should not be a problem. A lot of the guys have played here before -the likes of Elton [Chigumbura], Prosper [Utseya] and Ray Price who have been here before. This is their sixth visit and they have plenty of experience playing here. Dew and humidity may be a factor but we are going to deal with any eventuality."
"I don't think the conditions have changed much here as I have been here plenty of times," added Chigumbura, who has played 37 international matches against Bangladesh. "I just need to use the experience I have gathered and use it properly. We expect that [slow, low pitches] here and the guys are working on it in the hope that it will come right during the games as well. It will be good to play here to prepare ourselves for the World Cup."
Though Zimbabwe were crushed 4-1 the last time they visited Bangladesh - including the humiliation of being skittled for just 44 to surrender the series in the fourth ODI at Chittagong - bowling coach Heath Streak believes they are a much improved unit and are eager to show just how far they have come.
"We played a lot between now and then and we had a good series at home against Sri Lanka and India and quite a competitive series against South Africa," said Streak." Of course we have Chigumbura and Taibu and Taylor who are all in really good form. We also have some good spinners so they will also plan to see how they play our spinners better. We are going to respect them but we are also here to prove that we are getting better and we deserve to get back into the Test arena."
"It will be a factor in how people perceive Zimbabwe cricket," Butcher responded when asked if a series win would be a boost to Zimbabwe's return to Test cricket. "Should we win the series after Bangladesh demolished New Zealand, people will have to sit up and take notice and respect Zimbabwe cricket and feel that it is on an upward path again."
Liam Brickhill is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo