It has become a refrain in Zimbabwe cricket circles that the national side needs to play more cricket in order to improve. After their defeat to West Indies on Tuesday, coach Heath Streak reiterated Zimbabwe's need for elite cricket: the Bulawayo Test was just their second Test of the year.
"It is difficult," Streak said. "Unfortunately for us, we had planned to have Pakistan A for two four-day games [before this series]. They would have been very strong opposition, but that didn't materialise and it set us back a little bit. We had our own Logan Cup games but the level of that is not quite the same. I've said for a while that I think Zimbabwe play well when we play consistently and regularly at elite level. Hopefully in the future we will have fewer long gaps in between series and guys can play regularly at that high level."
Zimbabwe have played just 14 full international games this year, and seven of those were against Afghanistan and Scotland. Compare that to, for example, their neighbours South Africa who have played 37 internationals so far in 2017, going on multi-format tours of New Zealand and England, and hosting Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.
Happily for Zimbabwe, the next six months or so will see them playing much more cricket. While there are Tests against South Africa and Afghanistan to look forward to, much of the focus will also be on ODI cricket. In March, Zimbabwe will host the World Cup Qualifiers, needing to reach the final in order to book a spot at the 2019 World Cup in England.
"Originally we had asked West Indies to play ODIs because our focus is very much on the World Cup qualifiers that we're hosting and we want to make sure we get into the 2019 World Cup," Streak explained. "So short-format cricket is a strong focus that we're going to have over the next six months, but we have some series lined up against Pakistan, Afghanistan want to play us, so we've got a good bank of cricket coming up next year, which will be good for the guys to play regularly."
Ahead of an unusually busy scheduling period for them, Zimbabwe's first challenge will be to level the Test series against West Indies in the second match, starting on Sunday. Streak rued the "golden opportunity" Zimbabwe let slip in the first when their batsmen failed to take advantage of the strong position set up by the bowlers on the first day.
"I think it really boiled down to our first-innings batting," Streak said. "We were bitterly disappointed after day two because it was a golden opportunity. I thought our bowlers did a really good job, and we didn't have a lot of luck. I think we beat the bat more regularly than they did with spinners. Sometimes you make your own luck, so hopefully we can do that a bit better. We had a couple of chances, and even though they weren't massively costly chances, they add up. I thought as a bowling and fielding unit we were pretty good, it just boils down to that one innings."
Streak suggested that there would be no major tactical or personnel changes for the hosts for what has become a must-win second Test.
"I think we've got good balance to our side," he said. "In terms of the types of bowlers we have, Jarvis and Mpofu are very different types of bowlers. We have a legspinner, an offspinner, a left-arm spinner, Malcolm Waller who can weigh in. I though Solomon Mire had a good start to his Test career - he was unfortunate not to get a fifty but his bowling was good. Maybe we can use guys like Hamilton Masakadza and Malcolm Waller more in the next Test match and see how they can do. I think a slower bowler bowling wicket to wicket with the keeper up is something we may look to do in the next Test."