Resurgent Zimbabwe face stern test
Friday, October 8, Bloemfontein
Start time 6:00pm (1600 GMT)
The Big Picture
As next-door neighbours and useful sparring partners, Zimbabwe are regular opponents in the early stages of South Africa's international season, with 20 of their previous 36 encounters taking place between late August and early November. On paper, therefore, this short series would appear to be just another unequal struggle, especially given that Zimbabwe have only ever won two encounters against the regional heavyweights, none of which have come in the past decade.
Unusually, however, the true focus of this tour is Zimbabwe's resurgence, rather than South Africa's search for early-season fluency, and the first match in Bloemfontein - which will also be the first time the two teams have met in a Twenty20 international - will be a significant indicator as to the extent of the country's redevelopment. Everything about the team, from the return of Grant Flower at the age of 39 to the announcement that Reebok will be their new kit suppliers, suggests that the traumas of the recent past are dissipating, and a bright new dawn is in the offing.
Whether the dawn is bright enough for them to pull off a surprise victory in the coming weeks remains to be seen, but with Graeme Smith having stepped down from his Twenty20 role in favour of the spinner Johan Botha, there's a hint of inexperience upon which they'll hope to capitalise. Besides, in the shortest form of the game, there's a much greater scope for upsets, as Zimbabwe proved in beating Australia at the 2007 World Twenty20.
Elton Chigumbura, Zimbabwe's captain, has promised his team will come out with a new aggressive approach, having talked his tactics through with a brains trust that includes Alan Butcher, the former head coach at Surrey, as well as several stars of Zimbabwe's brief golden era of the late 1990s, most notably Flower, Heath Streak the bowling coach and Alistair Campbell, the chief selector. With the 2011 World Cup fast approaching, this brief encounter could prove more instructive than past history would suggest.
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Watch out for...
Grant Flower's return to the fray after a six-year absence has been the biggest talking point of the tour. Despite a visa glitch that left him stranded at Harare Airport while the rest of the team set off for Johannesburg, he has now caught up with the squad and is ready to resume an international career that already encompasses 67 Tests and 219 ODIs. Assuming he's fit and ready to take part in his first Twenty20 international, Zimbabwe will hope he can rediscover the form he displayed for Essex in the 2010 English summer, in which he was especially effective in the CB40 competition with 511 runs at 73.00 in 10 innings.
David Miller had already created a stir by the time he made his international debut - age 20 - earlier this year against West Indies. He didn't disappoint - making 33 from 26 balls down the order to help revive a flagging total and set up a narrow win. His blend of power and dexterity, alongside a clear-headed confidence makes him an ideal finisher who could prove the catalyst to South Africa's improvement in the way Eoin Morgan has done for England.
South Africa may have followed their lethargic showing in the World Twenty20 with a pair of wins over West Indies but suspicion remains they are still groping for a combination capable of challenging the best teams in this format. They have a new-look team for this series with Dale Steyn and Jacques Kallis resting and AB de Villiers out with injury. The exciting prospect Colin Ingram will make his debut and Heino Kuhn gets another chance behind the stumps in place of de Villiers. Wayne Parnell's return from injury gives the home side a boost while Ryan McLaren, who was surprisingly overlooked for the original squad, comes in for Albie Morkel, who picked up a side strain while playing for Chennai Super Kings in the Champions League.
South Africa (possible) 1 Graeme Smith, 2 Loots Bosman, 3 Colin Ingram, 4 JP Duminy, 5 Heino Kuhn (wk), 6 David Miller, 7 Johan Botha (capt), 8 Ryan McLaren, 9 Morne Morkel, 10 Wayne Parnell, 11 Lonwabo Tsotsobe.
Grant Flower's presence in the top order dominates the team news while Ed Rainsford should get his chance after a strong showing in the ODI series against Ireland where he picked up 10 wickets in the three matches.
Zimbabwe (possible) 1 Brendan Taylor, 2 Hamilton Masakadza, 3 Grant Flower, 4 Tatenda Taibu (wk), 5 Charles Coventry, 6 Chamu Chibhabha, 7 Elton Chigumbura (capt), 8 Prosper Utseya, 9 Shingirai Masakadza, 10 Ed Rainsford, 11 Chris Mpofu.
Pitch and conditions
There has not been an international match played at Bloemfontein since South Africa eased to an innings victory over Bangladesh almost two years ago. Back then there were runs aplenty for the home side before Bangladesh's batsmen struggled. Twenty20 conditions should be benign and with the forecast set fair runs should be on offer.
Stats and trivia
- 39 may not seem the normal age for newcomers but Grant Flower will make his Twenty20 International debut at Bloemfontein.
- Flower can at least claim to have some good form behind him. In his last international game, six years ago, he took 3 for 36 before top-scoring with 59 to help Zimbabwe edge to victory over Bangladesh.
- Since clubbing 94 from 45 balls against England at Centurion Loots Bosman has made 8, 0, 7, and 0 in Twenty20 Internationals.
"Pro20 cricket is about who is the better team on the day, the uncertainty of this format is what makes it so exciting."
Alan Butcher knows the shortest format may be Zimbabwe's best chance of springing a surprise.
"When I have a bat in my hand and when I am hitting the ball, I feel in my element."
Colin Ingram only feels comfortable when at the crease. Which is fortunate for a top-order batsman.
Andrew Miller is UK of ESPNcricinfo© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.