Zimbabwe fail the fitness Test
Although ostensibly Zimbabwe talked of winning the ODI series against Pakistan at the outset, their best hopes lay in a one-off upset. Recent victories against Australia in the World Twenty20, West Indies and against some South African representative sides notwithstanding, the consistency required to win a series is still absent.
Still, even with lowered expectations, they would have left unhappy: injuries, ailing opening partnerships, an ineffective and shallow bowling line-up and the failure, and reluctance, to learn from mistakes making for a glum show.
The problems began at the top, with their openers unable to lay a decent foundation. With starts of 47, 16, 10, 7 and 23, the middle order was left to rescue rather than carry forward momentum. Brendan Taylor (139 runs), Tatenda Taibu (161 runs) and Sean Williams (192 runs) were left with too much to do, though they obliged responsibly. This was Zimbabwe's biggest positive, as formidable partnerships were regularly formed against more than adequate bowling.
However, their unfamiliarity against spin was exposed repeatedly and that too against part-time spinners and an unknown. Shoaib Malik and Shahid Afridi shared 16 wickets in the ODIs, after the little-known Yasir Shah, a right-arm leg-spinner, had initiated the trend in the tour match. He only managed three wickets, but troubled Zimbabwe consistently. In the ODIs, it wasn't just the fall of wickets but the lack of ideas to exploit Pakistan's lack of bowling depth (the home side played only three specialist bowlers throughout the series) that was worrying.
The real problems were with the ball, however. Christopher Mpofu was ineffective and though Gary Brent slaved away without reward and Tawanda Mupariwa sparkled in his only outing, they were desperately short of a quick, quality bowler; too many were similarly medium-paced. Ray Price only managing 5 for 220 off his 50 overs didn't help either. The fielding remained enthusiastic, often effective though they continued to drop vital chances.
Above all, however, it was Zimbabwe's failure to capitalise on good positions that stood out. Robin Brown, Zimbabwe's coach, spoke of his side lacking a killer instinct through the series. It showed; Pakistan were reeling at 78 for 5 in Multan but went on to score 272 and from 155 for 3 in reply, Zimbabwe could only manage 80 in the last 14 overs. In Hyderabad, Zimbabwe were on for a big total, but from a healthy 156 for 2 in 32 overs, they reached only a disappointing 238. They then dropped four vital catches. Their resistance faltered as the series progressed and by Sheikhupura, when they were all out for 181, heads had dropped.
For Pakistan, the series was an opportunity to test its bench strength in various areas. They tried nine new players but only enjoyed mixed results. Nasir Jamshed shone as an opener with entertaining half-centuries to start his career (following a majestic 182 in the tour match) but faded as his timing, placement and perhaps confidence deserted him. Samiullah Khan, from whom much was expected after this domestic season's performances, was swiftly dumped after failing to impress.
Khalid Latif, Sohail Khan, Kamran Hussain, Khurram Manzoor, Abdur Rauf and Wahab Riaz were also given opportunities as Pakistan looked for fast bowlers and openers. Latif and Sohail fluffed their initial chances, but the others fared better. However, as commendable a good debut is, one match and that too against Zimbabwe is hardly a reliable gauge of talent and potential, especially when Australia are next in line.
For the established lot, however, the series rendered a munificent feast. Malik made a terrific all-round return from injury, scoring two fifties and topping the bowling charts with 11 wickets. Mohammad Yousuf scored the only century of the series and Younis Khan and the ever-realiable Misbah-ul-Haq did no harm to their batting averages. Afridi, too, availed whatever opportunity he got, finishing with five wickets and 130 runs (including a 27-ball 43 and a 52-ball 85).
A good start to the year was what Malik was after - "We will ensure that we don't repeat mistakes made last year and will try our best to start 2008 off with a series win" - and he got the win, but the absence of Shoaib Akhtar, Mohammad Asif and Umar Gul was felt enormously.
Hamilton Masakadza's reminder that his side wasn't "outplayed" and was "in a position to win at least three matches" was half true. And the credible purpose of the series was to get experience of conditions outside Zimbabwe, to play against quality opposition and grab a glimpse of what to expect when they re-enter Test cricket. But much re-grouping and re-assessing is still required before their series against India, for based on this performance, Zimbabwe lack the strength to re-enter that world. Much the same can be said of Pakistan's impending challenge against Australia.
Faras Ghani is an editorial assistant at Cricinfo