When last have you been to Bulawayo?
A friend asked me the question fans have been asking Test cricket since the last time either of us was there five years ago, in 2011. So long ago that we were warned that we would face the land that time forgot. Frankly, I couldn't wait.
Like any second city, Bulawayo has had to endure its fair share of shadow-occupancy to its bigger brother Harare, and it's smaller but more beautiful sibling, Victoria Falls. It's famous for being the birthplace of royalty - not just the kings the city is named after - but Charlene, Princess of Monaco, and its connections to other notables such as writers Doris Lessing and NoViolet Bulawayo, Olympic medalist Kirsty Coventry, footballers Peter Ndlovu and Benjani Mwaruwari, and cricketers Graeme Hick and Heath Streak. Apart from its people, Bulawayo is a sepia photograph filled with memories. For some, those memories include the last time big cricket came to town.
Since Zimbabwe's 2011 Test matches against New Zealand and Pakistan, Queens Sports Club has hosted 17 ODIs and four T20Is, which does not sound too bad. But in a place where pause seems to be the default setting, there's a thirst for Test cricket. Finally, it has arrived, and everything from the airport to the Queens clubhouse seems to be quietly celebrating.
Joshua Nkomo International Airport has an upgraded terminal to replace the tin shed that welcomed us five years ago. Then, there was one boarding gate, and rudimentary immigration and passport control services. Now, it gleams of newness and the queues to the counters snake around a small room.
On Tuesday morning, it had to accommodate Makhaya Ntini, who was returning from CSA's 25-years anniversary dinner, on the 10:40 flight from Johannesburg, along with several members of the television production company, who were only confirmed at the last minute, and umpire Michael Gough, who arrived in Johannesburg from Newcastle on Monday night. Gough will stand in his first (and second) Tests in Bulawayo, and might be quietly expecting it to be an easing in to officiating at the highest level.
Two hours later, Ntini was in his kit at Queens Sports Club, throwing balls. Lance Klusener was already there. At some point, Klusener got into an unusually animated discussion with Ntini, gesturing several times towards the square. There, Fungai Shanganya, Zimbabwe Cricket's head groundsman, who regularly prepares surfaces for international cricket in Harare, is in his hometown of Bulawayo to get not one, but two Test pitches ready. He's done this before, in Harare in 2013, when back-to-back matches were played against Bangladesh, so he knows how to handle a quick turnaround.
In the middle of the lush outfield, he is preparing the right-most surface from the main grandstand and one in the middle. No one is quite sure which one will be used first. "They'll be exactly the same, so chances are we'll just decide on the day," someone joked.
Far more important decisions await Zimbabwe, though, as they enter their first home Tests in almost two years, depleted of their most important bowling resources. Both Tinashe Panyangara and Tendai Chatara have been ruled out due to injuries.
Brian Vitori, who returned from having his action declared illegal, remodeled and then cleared, in last week's match against South Africa A, is hanging around. Vitori looks fitter and fresher than ever, but is unsure if he is ready to play at the highest level. "I am getting there, slowly, slowly, I am getting there" he says.
If he isn't quite there yet, Michael Chinouya might be. In all the years I have come across him, he still hasn't learned to crack a smile, which is completely unlike John Nyumbu. Ever ready for a joke, Nyumbu greets the media with the reality that there will be, "no dancing this time," when wickets fall because he is also not in the squad. Hamilton Masakadza, who comes to call the stragglers for a meeting, is unlikely to be persuaded to dance, but he is more than likely to stop for a chat and he does.
A few meters away, in the president's suite, two men are putting up a flatscreen television for the VIPs directly above the area where they will look out from. Behind them are an odd collection of trophies - one from an ODI between Zimbabwe and Pakistan in 1998, another from the 1991 Currie Cup - and a photograph of a cap-wearing Peter Pollock, jumping up to defend a ball delivered by Doug Walters at Newlands in 1970. Of all the places in the world to find a picture of that, Queens Sports Club would not have been my guess.
To the left of that, in a corporate box, with a luxurious wooden bar top, the seats have not been upholstered in years and the foam from the head rests and seats is peeping through the peeling black covers. Downstairs, a man is washing the window sills, wiping away any dust that may have collected there. Another is watering the grass beneath the open stands. None of them needs do anything to the main embankment. It is as inviting as ever. The trees are the same height as they have always been. The dappled sunlight shines through them, creating golden drops on the grass. Maybe, it will be full at some point over the next two weeks. Maybe.
But, maybe not. There are several posters advertising the tickets prices for the two Tests - US$3 for the grandstand and US$2 for anywhere else in the ground. With a severe cash shortage in the country, who knows if people have any to spare. The emptiness of the Queens Sports Bar suggests not. At around 5pm, there is only a small group of people seated inside. They are watching highlights of the recently completed England-Pakistan Test. Time may have forgotten this place, but cricket has not.