<
>

Zimbabwe on the back foot before a ball bowled

Prince Masvaure showed the value of having played the matches against South Africa A AFP

On a day that Zimbabwe should have been unpacking the problems that caused them to crash to 72 for 8, it seemed almost unfair for them to present the two men who got them to 164 at the post-play press conference. But Donald Tiripano and Prince Masvaure were put before the media and had barely taken their seats when interim head coach Makhaya Ntini boomed into and out of the room, asking the scribes not be "too harsh," on them. How would we be?

If not for their efforts, Zimbabwe could have been bowled out for under 100, for just the ninth time in their Test history; they could have been dismissed for the lowest first innings score at Bulawayo; they could have been in a much, much worse position and the pair knew it.

"When we lost eight wickets, we needed to stay positive. We said to each other, if it's there to score, we take them on and if we are to get out, let's make sure we don't get out to a short ball," the debutant Masvaure said.

Three of his team-mates had already done exactly that, falling into a trap created by left-armer Neil Wagner, who combined aggression with an unusual strategy on the usually docile Queens surface. The bouncer is most often wasted in Bulawayo but Wagner decided to use it in the absence of sustained swing. "We knew we had to try and add a surprise factor, something a bit different because there wasn't much movement," Wagner said. "Tactically the short ball is one of my strengths so I was trying to get players off the front foot, create some doubt in their footwork and maybe get wickets that way."

Zimbabwe's line-up was probably filled with doubt even before Wagner's first delivery. Their lack of experience and lack of game time means they are not well-versed in the art of building an innings, something Tiripano singled out. "It's all about the mindset. When you are playing Test cricket you have to be prepared to bat for a long time or bowl for a long time, to repeat the same thing over and over again. It's all about patience, about gutsing it out there," he said. "The guys didn't apply themselves as much as they should have. It's something they need to work on."

But how?

Zimbabwe simply do not play enough cricket at any level and in any format to work on skills. Even the most capped member of their XI today - Hamilton Masakadza who is playing in his 30th Test - has not played a first-class in seven months. In 2015, Masakadza played just five first-class matches. This year alone, Wagner has played more than double that: 11.

The domestic structure in Zimbabwe, comprised of four franchises who each play each other twice in a season - does not allow for greater game time which only underlines the importance of organising other fixtures and then using them to develop Test cricketers. Fixtures like their unofficial Tests against South Africa A are an example.

However, instead of fielding a side that included all the Test players, Zimbabwe chose to give some of their fringe candidates an opportunity, which would be worthwhile if they had a surplus of fixtures. But, with the knowledge they have not played a Test in 20 months, they could not afford that and should have given the likes of Masakadza, Chamu Chibhabha and Sikandar Raza time in the middle.

They need look no further than Masvaure to understand why. After an undefeated 88 and an authoritative 146 in those matches, Masvaure showed awareness of the game situation was assured at the crease. Zimbabwe could have considered batting him higher up or using him to open, as he did in the A game, although Masvaure was not expecting such a promotion. "I thought I would bat in the lower order because we have a lot of experienced guys in the top order," he said. Perhaps Zimbabwe will change their minds about that in the next match.

For now, they have a mountain to climb in this one which will start with damage limitation in New Zealand's first innings. If Zimbabwe want to take inspiration from Sri Lanka, who clawed their way back from being shot out for 117 in Pallekele to put themselves close to a winning position at the end of the third day, they have to bowl New Zealand out fairly cheaply.

The evidence of the first ten overs does not suggest Zimbabwe will, unless they take Tiripano's advice. "We have to be more patient and be exact in our plans, because we are bowling to a good side. The wicket was beginning to turn so I think the spinners will play a bigger part. We've got to be on the mark and create a lot of pressure," he said.

Currently, Zimbabwe are the side under pressure but at least two of their XI, Tiripano and Masvaure, have showed they can deal with it. The press, and the people, one of whom left the stadium predicting that, "the match will be over by Saturday tea time because we are useless," won't be too harsh on those two but unless the rest can follow suit, criticism is sure to flow.