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Mountaineers favourites as Zimbabwe's new domestic season begins

Visiting fans unfurl the Zimbabwe flag after victory is secured Peter Della Penna

The Zimbabwean domestic season has been abridged, with the Rising Stars team - that won the Pro50 Championship last season - dismantled as part of Zimbabwe Cricket's ICC-backed austerity measures announced in October. The Rising Stars players will be absorbed into the other four teams.

The Eagles, Tuskers, Rhinos and Mountaineers will compete in two rounds of Logan Cup and Pro50 matches before the season breaks for Christmas, picking up again in the new year. After retaining the Logan Cup and reaching the Pro50 final last season, Mountaineers will begin the 2018-19 campaign as the favourites for both titles.

"We are obviously looking to defend our Logan Cup title and try and make it three out of three," said Mountaineers coach Shepherd Makunura. "Being the team to beat obviously comes with a bit of pressure but we are all relishing the challenge ahead and hopefully we can play some good cricket and defend our title and also hopefully win the Pro50 Championship."

Mountaineers will begin their Logan Cup defence away to Rhinos at Kwekwe Sports Club, while Eagles are hosting Tuskers at Harare Sports Club in the season openers. The four-day matches will be followed by the first round of the one-day Pro50 Championship, featuring the same pairings at the same venues on December 8.

Many of the former Rising Stars players have secured spaces in other teams, with Brandon Mavuta returning to Rhinos, for whom he made his first-class debut in 2016. Batsman Tarisai Musakanda also returns to Rhinos, while Tinashe Kamunhukamwe, Richard Ngarava, Tony Munyonga, Rugare Magarira, Ryan Murray and Faraz Akram have all moved to Eagles.

Mountaineers have retained all of their players from last season, with Tino Mawoyo captaining a side that includes the likes of Zimbabwe skipper Hamilton Masakadza as well as national team players Donald Tiripano, Tendai Chatara and Wellington Masakadza.

"We have retained last season's squad but there are a few guys that are keen on making a comeback into national sides such as Vusi Sibanda, Innocent Kaia and Kevin Kasuza," said Makunura. "So we should expect a lot from these guys."

Mountaineers' credentials should be tested by their first-round opponents, Rhinos, who will be desperate to do justice to the talent at their disposal. On paper, Rhinos are arguably the strongest franchise side, with national team players Brendan Taylor, Kyle Jarvis, Graeme Cremer, Peter Moor, Neville Madziva, Tendai Chisoro, Prince Masvaure, Mavuta and Musakanda on their books.

Eagles have a new coach in Stuart Matsikenyeri, and they will seek to replicate the performances that saw them winning all three domestic titles in the 2015-16 season. Aside from the former Rising Stars who have joined their ranks, Eagles will also draw on the experience of captain Tinotenda Mutombodzi, Chamu Chibhabha, Elton Chigumbura and Regis Chakabva. Allrounder Luke Jongwe has also joined Eagles, moving from Tuskers.

"I expect Eagles to make steps toward getting back to the top of domestic cricket where I feel we belong," said Matsikenyeri. "There is massive talent and a big team is not the easiest to manage but that's a good problem to have."

Tuskers also have a new coach, national bowling coach Douglas Hondo filling the role, but the Bulawayo-based franchise have not made many changes to their playing staff.

"I would like to bring in a positive and progressive brand of cricket, where guys have clearly defined roles and must be effective in executing them," Hondo said.

While Sean Williams and Sikandar Raza are away at the Mzansi Super League, Craig Ervine, John Nyumbu, Chris Mpofu and Brian Chari will form the nucleus of the team.