Zimbabwe's lost son has returned, and bringing good news it seems. Brendan Taylor, Zimbabwe's finest batsman of the last decade, and possibly ever, is back in the fold and reckons "this can be the best period of Zimbabwe cricket". And it's not just Taylor who has a spring in his step. Kyle Jarvis also returns to bring thoroughbred quality to the pace attack, while Hamilton Masakadza, Craig Ervine, Sean Williams and Sikandar Raza are all fairly recent Test centurions. This is turning out to be a galvanising year for Zimbabwe, following on from the team effort that brought one-day success, and nearly a Test upset, in Sri Lanka three months ago.
Yet Zimbabwe will want to avoid sticking too close to the parable of the prodigal son now that Taylor and Jarvis are sure to slot straight back into the playing XI - those who stayed behind must also continue to be valued, or the return may unsettle even as it replenishes resources. It needs to be managed sensitively. After their successful tour of Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe were already in a good place as a unit. With good man management, the addition of the returning County pros will only inspirit this squad further. This feels like it could be the start of a brave new era for Zimbabwean cricket.
It is continuity, rather than novelty, that West Indies are focused on. The selectors have delivered captain Jason Holder the same squad that went to England and bounced back from mediocre depths at Edgbaston to win in Leeds. West Indies found some fight on that tour, their 4-0 ODI defeat notwithstanding, and will need to retain their grit if they are to keep a resurgent Zimbabwe down.
Shai Hope's broad bat, and West Indies' gaggle of menacing quicks, might prove to be the difference between the two sides, though Zimbabwe will try to negate West Indies' pace advantage by preparing a pitch to suit their own slow-bowling strengths. Taylor's return will add mettle to their middle order too, and in familiar conditions, but as West Indies coach Stuart Law pointed out ahead of the opening Test, when you bowl as fast as Shannon Gabriel it doesn't really matter what sort of pitch you're playing on.
West Indies have lost out on automatic qualification for the next World Cup due to their one-day ranking, and they will be glad to be playing in conditions they will return to for the qualifiers in March. Their Test ranking of No. 8 could also do with some zhuzhing-up, but pride and fight are beginning to characterize this West Indies Test team, and there will be no danger of complacency for them despite the opposition.
Zimbabwe: LLLLL (most recent first)
West Indies: LWLLW
In the spotlight
Zimbabwe have been unfortunate to lose many players of great quality in the last ten to fifteen years. Some have come back, but not many, and fewer still have found success on their return. Brendan Taylor and Kyle Jarvis' comeback feels different, especially as both players may yet have their best years ahead of them. Its timing is also fortuitous: Zimbabwe have vital World Cup Qualifiers coming up, at home, in the New Year, a no less crucial World Cup appearance, and a nine-team Test league to break into in 2019. The road to those goals starts here, and both players will have major roles to play.
Shai Hope scored 375 runs in six innings in England, at an average of 75.00, and was the leading run-scorer on either side in the three Tests. The desiccating heat of Bulawayo will feel a long way from Headingley's temperate green fields, but his returns will be no less important to West Indies' success. Hope scored a one-day century at this ground on West Indies' last tour of Zimbabwe and is an increasingly important member of his team's middle order.
After scoring nearly 2000 runs for Nottinghamshire, including six centuries, during his international absence, Taylor slots straight back into the playing XI. Taylor scored just 123 runs in five innings, at an average of 24.60, during Notts' Division Two Championship campaign last season, but Zimbabwe won't be too bothered. He cracked a comeback hundred for Mid West Rhinos a few weeks ago, and should feel right at home in Zimbabwe's middle order. Jarvis should be equally au fait with the new ball, though spin might bring more reward as this match progresses. As such, Tendai Chisoro may be in line for a Test debut to partner Graeme Cremer. Completing Zimbabwe's new look, Solomon Mire is also a very strong contender to debut at the top of the order.
Zimbabwe (possible): 1 Solomon Mire, 2 Hamilton Masakadza, 3 Craig Ervine, 4 Brendan Taylor, 5 Sean Williams, 6 Sikandar Raza, 7 Regis Chakabva (wk), 8 Graeme Cremer (capt), 9 Tendai Chisoro, 10 Kyle Jarvis, 11 Chris Mpofu.
A settled unit, West Indies are likely to stick with similar combinations to those used in England, but there will be a greater importance to the performance of their leading spinner, Devendra Bishoo. Their selectors have shown faith in the likes of Kyle Hope and Shane Dowrich despite iffy returns in England, and that faith should extend into the playing XI.
West Indies (possible): 1 Kraigg Brathwaite, 2 Kieran Powell, 3 Kyle Hope, 4 Shai Hope, 5 Roston Chase, 6 Jermaine Blackwood, 7 Shane Dowrich (wk), 8 Jason Holder (capt), 9 Devendra Bishoo, 10 Kemar Roach, 11 Shannon Gabriel.
Pitch and Conditions
Zimbabwe will have had a good look at the pitch that will be used for the first Test - the squad played a practice match on it last week. While not as slow and spongy as the track that West Indies played on in their own warm-up at the Bulawayo Athletic Club, the Queens track will probably play a little on the slow side and take spin despite the fact that neither of the two rounds of Logan Cup matches so far this season were played here, so it is still fairly fresh.
The summer rains have not yet quite reached Zimbabwe, and the thermometer extended well beyond 30 degrees in the week before the Test. The energy-sapping heat should stick around, while there may also be a few thunderstorms about over the five days.
Stats and Trivia
Zimbabwe and West Indies last played a Test match more than four years ago, in Dominica. Zimbabwe have never beaten West Indies in a Test match.
Zimbabwe last won a Test four years ago, against Pakistan in Harare. They have since lost nine out of nine: five at home, three in Bangladesh, and one in Sri Lanka.
West Indies have won two of the six Test matches they have played this year.
Shai Hope, Kyle Hope, Roston Chase, Kieran Powell, and Kraigg Brathwaite all passed fifty in West Indies' warm-up match.
"We know what the Queens Sports Club wicket does. We're trying to make the wicket suit our strengths and that's part and parcel of playing at home. Hopefully we can use that to our advantage."
Coach Heath Streak sees conditions that could favour Zimbabwe's strengths
"If you look at the squad Zimbabwe have picked, they've got six players who can bowl spin. The wicket here is traditionally very good for batting and spins more and more as the game goes on. Having said that, we've also got two or three guys who can crank it up to over 90mph and at that pace it doesn't really matter where you're playing, it's hard to bat against."
West Indies coach Stuart Law reckons pace could play a role no matter the quality of the pitch