Zimbabwe Cricket has approached Afghanistan, Ireland and Scotland in an attempt to fill the gap in its fixtures list over the next six months. Zimbabwe last played during a tri-series with Sri Lanka and West Indies in November last year and they do not have anything else scheduled until a trip to Sri Lanka in June.
With the qualifying tournament for the 2019 World Cup little more than a year away, Zimbabwe have concluded that taking on the leading Associate nations may be the best way to give players significant game time. The domestic schedule in Zimbabwe continues to be disrupted by disputes over player payments, which puts another obstacle in the way of Heath Streak, who was appointed head coach in October with a goal of World Cup qualification.
Tatenda Taibu, the former Zimbabwe captain and team-mate of Streak who took over as convener of selectors last year, said they had made it a priority to arrange fixtures on the grounds that "some cricket is better than no cricket". Zimbabwe have featured at every World Cup since 1983 but are currently 11th in the ICC ODI rankings, above only Ireland. The top eight teams will qualify automatically for the 2019 tournament in England, with two further places to be contested in the ICC Qualifier.
Afghanistan, who have beaten Zimbabwe in four of the five ODI and T20 series the two countries have played, are expected to accept an invitation to tour in February. The ACB has already confirmed a visit by the Afghanistan A team to play five one-day games at the end of January.
"When Streak and I realised there wasn't another game until six months from now, we had to meet up and come up with a plan," Taibu said. "We have since approached Afghanistan and they are sending their A side this month, and the month after they are sending their national team. We have started talking to Ireland and Scotland, at least to be playing - it's harder to get the bigger teams, they are involved in other matches according to the FTP. But we thought some cricket is better than no cricket.
"All the upcoming Associate teams, they have been playing good cricket and that is better - as much as we know that it's good to have the players playing first-class cricket, it's better for them to play this type of [international] cricket. So we have started speaking to Ireland, we have started speaking to Scotland, to make sure we play those matches before the matches against Sri Lanka. Beyond that we have spoken to West Indies and Bangladesh, and those matches will come after. And those are almost all confirmed."
With the shrinking of the 2019 World Cup from 16 teams to ten, all of the Associate nations have been pressing for more fixtures against Full Members.
Last year, Scotland captain Preston Mommsen retired aged 29 in part due to his frustration at limited opportunities, while at the 2012 World T20, Ireland's Trent Johnston singled out Zimbabwe and Bangladesh, in particular, as being "scared" to play them and trying to protect their rankings.
Zimbabwe have only twice played bilateral series against Ireland, in 2010-11 and 2015-16; they have never played an ODI against Scotland, with their only competitive meeting coming at the 2016 World T20. But Taibu said the new Zimbabwe set-up would be taking a different view.
"I don't know why they were not playing before but when I started getting involved, we thought playing some cricket is better than no cricket and we should play whoever is available," Taibu said. "If that was the case, I don't know why that would be the decision but, for me, playing is way better than not."
One aspect of Zimbabwe's slim fixture list has been a lack of finances. At the domestic level, that has led to players going on strike during the first-class Logan Cup, the start of which was postponed last month, along with the 40-over Zimbabwe Premier League, due to "logistical challenges".
The second round of Logan Cup matches, due to have begun on Thursday, has also been put back after some players only received part-payment for December and some were not paid at all. The competition is expected to re-start on January 17.
Six months after returning to work with Zimbabwe Cricket, Taibu has been steadily getting to grips with his role - he is currently the board's only selector, oversees player development and is planning to set up an academy in England, where he is based - and he suggested that some of the problems were as much to do with improving the levels of administration and communication as down to funding.
"Part of the reason that we are in the situation we are in is because some things are not really done professionally at times," Taibu said. "You hear that players don't know if a game is still on on this date, and accommodation has not been sorted, and things like that - petty, minor issues.
"I don't want to be seen as a person who comes in and overrides people. But those are the things I've noticed, that some of the things are not done on time. Bar the financial issues, there are certain things you need to plan ahead … If there's money to come from ICC, there's ample time for it to happen. So those are just the minor things I feel that, if we're able to tweak them, then half the issues we are talking about - players not being paid on time and things like that - those will be settled."
With inputs from Umar Farooq and Firdose Moonda