Buoyant Pakistan overwhelming favourites against depleted Zimbabwe
One of these two sides hasn't won an ODI all year. The other one... is Zimbabwe.
Even if you were a consummate optimist, that's about the only thing you could think of that makes this series even faintly competitive. Because while Pakistan did begin this year with an ignominious trip to New Zealand where they lost all five ODIs they played in, they've had a remarkable white-ball year since. They won the T20I series that followed, whitewashed West Indies at home in April, sealed a comfortable 2-0 win over Scotland, and are coming off a win in the T20I tri-series in Zimbabwe. However, they haven't played another ODI since that series against New Zealand, which means they go into this contest with an inferior ODI record to their hosts this year.
Zimbabwe's 2018 ODI numbers aren't exactly the sort to make you leap from your chair though - the hosts have won five and lost nine of the 15 games they've played. At the World Cup Qualifiers, Graeme Cremer's side had begun to look like a team in the developing stages of long-term competitiveness. If that was the team due to face Pakistan, the tenor of this series would have been somewhat different.
But the core of that side has been ripped up since then, and looking at that Zimbabwe team for guidance as to how this one might perform would be a fool's errand. As if things weren't bad enough already, Zimbabwe are forced to approach this series with their two best players (from the ones that were willing to play) ruled out. Kyle Jarvis hasn't played since sustaining a thumb injury in the first T20I, while star batsman Solomon Mire has been ruled out with a gluteal tear.
One positive Zimbabwe could draw from the tri-series - in which they went winless - was the team's steady improvement with each match, coming agonisingly close to upsetting Australia in the last round-robin game in a result no neutral would have begrudged them. Team spirit hadn't appeared to have suffered despite the long-strained relations between the board and the players, and the long-standing issue of undependable salaries. However, the grim realisation that the biggest reason for their competitiveness was the late-tournament form of Mire will not have escaped their notice, and his absence will undoubtedly bite them.
In truth, there is nothing for Pakistan to fear here. Sarfraz Ahmed's men are in fantastic form, no doubt buoyed by victory in a tri-series final they appeared to be chasing for the bulk of the contest. There is nothing this Zimbabwe side has to offer that Pakistan cannot handle in the longer formats. They may opt to rest several players - indeed, they were doing that even against Australia in the tri-series - with Mickey Arthur looking to fine-tune his squad as they build momentum ahead of the 2019 World Cup. One win in the five-match series for Zimbabwe would be an undisputed success, anything less than a whitewash for the visitors would be an underachievement.
Zimbabwe: LLWTW (last five completed matches, most recent first)
In the spotlight
Standing tall amid the chaos surrounding him - quite literally at 6 foot 8 - Blessing Muzarabani's nascent performances mark him out as the most exciting fast bowling talent Zimbabwe have produced in a while. The 21-year-old has quietly been making his mark on this new Zimbabwe side over the past few months, and was one of the most impressive performers for his team during the recently concluded tri-series. He shone at the World Cup Qualifiers, too, taking 4 for 47 as Zimbabwe clinched a two-run win against Afghanistan. He was also entrusted with bowling the final over against Scotland, where he snared Ben Wheal as Zimbabwe secured a crucial tie. With a lanky, slight frame, he has a clean action that allows him to extract more zip from the surface than his peers. It's all raw at the moment, though, and as he begins to understand his game better, he may become one of Zimbabwe's most prized assets.
Yasir Shah hasn't played an ODI in nearly two years, but his being in the squad suggests Pakistan may be looking at him for the 2019 World Cup. Yasir has long been viewed by most Pakistan selectors as a Test-match specialist, with the emergence and rapid rise of Shadab Khan further entrenching him into that specialised role. It's likely Yasir will feature prominently in this series now he's been called up, and how he gets on will be intriguing. Starting him off against this Zimbabwe side isn't exactly a baptism of fire, but it could be an opportunity for the 32-year-old to stake his claim for a spot in Pakistan's ODI team. Whether that means a twin spin attack or healthy competition between him and Shadab remains to be seen.
Zimbabwe have called up three uncapped players to the ODI squad, including former Under-19 captain Liam Roche. The other two are wicketkeeper Ryan Murray and 23-year-old batsman Tinashe Kamunhukamwe. As with the T20I side, Hamilton Masakadza will lead the ODI team.
Zimbabwe squad: Brian Chari, Tendai Chatara, Chamu Chibhabha, Elton Chigumbura, Tendai Chisoro, Tinashe Kamunhukamwe, Hamilton Masakadza (capt), Wellington Masakadza, Peter Moor, Ryan Murray (wk), Tarisai Musakanda, Blessing Muzarabani, Richard Ngarava, Liam Roche, Donald Tiripano, Malcolm Waller
Babar Azam said he had fully recovered from the arm fracture sustained in the first Test against England at Lord's in May, and will start tomorrow. Along with Yasir Shah, Junaid Khan also returns to the national set-up after not having played for a significant length of time; his last ODI was ten months ago against Sri Lanka. Imam-ul-Haq, who didn't make the T20I squad, is back in the frame for the ODIs and expected to partner Fakhar Zaman at the top of the order. Hussain Talat and Asif Ali are also in line for ODI debuts.
Pakistan (possible): 1 Fakhar Zaman 2 Imam-ul-Haq 3 Babar Azam 4 Shoaib Malik 5 Asif Ali 6 Sarfraz Ahmed (capt & wk) 7 Shadab Khan 8 Faheem Ashraf 9 Hasan Ali 10 Mohammad Amir 11 Usman Khan/ Yasir Shah
Pitch and conditions
Bulawayo's pitches are generally flatter than Harare's - the city is located in the south of Zimbabwe, which traditionally doesn't get as much rainfall. However, the pitch has got slower and lower over the past few years, so forcing the issue might prove dangerous for batsmen.
With this being the middle of the Zimbabwean winter, conditions will be cool and dry. It isn't expected to get as cold as Harare did during the tri-series.
Stats and trivia
- Pakistan are the only ranked ODI team to not to have won at least one ODI this year, having lost all five they've played.
- Pakistan have won all three games they've played against Zimbabwe at Queen's Sports Club, Bulawayo, but they haven't always had it easy. While they won one match by 104 runs, the other two triumphs were by seven runs and five runs respectively.
Danyal Rasool is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @Danny61000