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Isam: What's the point of the Bangladesh-Zimbabwe Test series?

A packed house at the Sylhet International Cricket Stadium witnesses the action Firoz Ahmed/The Daily Star

Just how important is the Sylhet Test for Bangladesh and Zimbabwe?

If you look beyond the freshness of Sylhet being a new venue and the excitement of the locals to host their maiden Test, the context around the Test series is hard to spot.

The World Cup, now seven months away, is front and centre in Bangladesh's overall strategy. Every player performance in the just-concluded ODI series was linked to who will get the coveted World Cup ticket. The importance of the series was justified, at least for Bangladesh who had to work quite hard to ensure they were part of the eight automatic qualifiers. Now, the players will appreciate all the game time they can get in the lead-up to the showpiece event, whatever the format - be it to impress or to fine-tune.

Zimbabwe's situation is worse, or given their narrative, emptier. Having slipped under the radar in Test cricket in the last few years, these two Tests in Sylhet and Dhaka will be their only matches in the format in 2018. They last played a Test in December last year, when they lasted two days of a four-day experimental contest. Their next assignment is scheduled to be in India, some five months from now. Add to that the fact that they will not be at World Cup 2019, and you know their players will not be complaining about the questionable context of any series they get the chance to be involved in.

Of course it is hard to blame the Zimbabwe cricketers for their lot. Their absence from next year's World Cup and the lack of Tests are the endpoint of the many and varied problems that have compounded over the years. Observers have felt a gradual move away from Tests almost to the point that the format is played ceremonially.

Zimbabwe captain Hamilton Masakadza put a positive spin to their plight, saying it would be easy to motivate his troops as they see the Test match as an opportunity. "We would like to play a lot more Test cricket but we don't, so it is easier to motivate the guys," he said. "It is easy to just tell them to go out there and put in everything. We don't get these opportunities often.

"We have to take this opportunity with both hands, and just go and play our best cricket. We have a long break before our next Test series, so it is even more motivation to put in as much as possible now, to take this opportunity."

The home side is not in such a dire state. Bangladesh are fresh off three ODI assignments in which they enhanced their reputation. The 2-1 win in the West Indies ODI series in July, reaching the Asia Cup final and crushing Zimbabwe 3-0 last week have all constituted to a great summer of limited-overs cricket. It is being viewed as the right type of take-off as they head into the World Cup.

Mahmudullah, the Test captain standing in in place of the injured Shakib Al Hasan, said that the World Cup is definitely on their minds, but improving their Test record this year, particularly after their West Indies debacle, is also necessary. "The World Cup is knocking on the door, but we didn't do well in the West Indies in our last Test series," he said. "This is a wonderful opportunity to win two Tests by using our home conditions. This is our primary target.

"We can do well in a Test if we can achieve small goals. We are now thinking about this Test; the World Cup is a different format, and we will think about it when the time comes."

Despite everything the captains say, there's no denying, many cricket fans will probably choose to ignore this series. Bangladesh playing Zimbabwe in Test cricket presumably does not offer the most mouth-watering of contests. And the lack of context in Test cricket has a major effect on lower-ranked cricket nations in the long term. The changing cricket culture towards shorter formats has a big impact on these nations; with more and more players attracted more towards the relatively cash-rich and popular overseas T20 leagues - and in Bangladesh's case ODI cricket - it shrinks the player base.

It is harder for Zimbabwe who have to reshape their entire policy to work towards the 2023 World Cup. Test cricket should have a bigger role to play in player development but, with fewer Tests being played and the lack of funds overall, interest in cricket shrinks to just the T20 bandwagon.

Holding this game in Sylhet is certainly a positive move. A large crowd is expected at the picturesque ground, located amidst rolling tea gardens. So at least there will be atmosphere.

But what do the players get out of doing well in this Test series?

Will it be a contest?

Will there be context?