World T20 2014 March 14, 2014

Zimbabwe must prove they belong in top tier


The theory is that the shorter the format, the more competitive teams will be. Zimbabwe have consistently proved that wrong. They haven't played much 20-over cricket at the highest level, just 28 matches, and have only won four of those. They have never won a T20 series consisting of more than one match and never progressed out of the group stage at a World T20. 

Perhaps, the more condensed the game, the easier it is to get shown up. There's too much pride at stake for Zimbabwe to risk having that happen again. That's why their captain Brendan Taylor has described it as "non-negotiable," that his team qualifies for the main draw. Anything less will confirm suspicions that Zimbabwean cricket is in decline. 

The coffers are all but empty, players are turning to other sources of income - Kyle Jarvis to Lancashire, Graeme Cremer reportedly to golf  - and administrators are begging for loans and debt write-offs. It's not unusual for Zimbabwe but it is disruptive and as other teams such as Afghanistan and Nepal start to rise above their problems, Zimbabwe see a need to do the same. 

Even though no Full Member's status is at risk and Zimbabwe will not lose anything besides a few games of cricket if they do not participate beyond the first-round, they have a reputation to protect. The only way they can do that is on the field. Taylor and Co. know it's up to them but they also have to be able to push that pressure aside to be able to perform. 

Key players
The advantage of having players thrown into the deep end young is that by the time they are a little older, their team can call on a core of experience. Zimbabwe have a handy one and will call on it to hold their nerve and provide the bulk of the runs and wickets. 

Hamilton Masakadza will have to set the tone upfront, Taylor will have to ensure he holds innings together, Sean Williams is the finisher and Elton Chigumbura will have an all-round role to play. All four of them have played in Bangladesh recently, in the Dhaka Premier League, and all four of them have what it takes to lead. Zimbabwe don't have a stand-out leader in the attack, with Chris Mpofu not in the squad, but Tinashe Panyangara has the skills and the temperament to assume that role. 

Surprise package
It came as a surprise Tafadzwa Kamungozi was picked in the Zimbabwe squad and the only way the legspinner can repay the selectors is by springing a few of his own. Kamungozi last played for Zimbabwe in 2006 and has never represented them in a T20. He only has 16 domestic T20 wickets to his name and the most he has managed in a season is five. Zimbabwe wanted a legspinning option, in place of Cremer, and it's up to Kamungozi to give them that.

Zimbabwean sportspeople are accustomed to playing the game against a backdrop of financial crises and administrative angst but this time the Zimbabwe players will have to do it with an additional hurdle: minimal match time. Zimbabwe have not played against another international side in six months since hosting Pakistan and are sorely lacking competitive practice, even at domestic level. 

After series against Sri Lanka and Afghanistan were cancelled because of lack of funds, a player strike crippled the local game and the planned domestic 20-over competition also did not take place. If Zimbabwe were going in cold in their own conditions they may play down this factor but, even though they have plenty of limited-overs experience in Bangladesh, adjusting to the slow, low, tracks without much form behind them will be a challenge. 

World T20 history
After stunning then ODI world champions Australia in their first match of the inaugural World T20 in 2007, Zimbabwe have fizzled out. They have lost all five other matches played at World T20s. 

They did not participate in the 2009 event and lost by narrow margins in 2010, but two years later suffered embarrassing defeats in Sri Lanka. Losses by 82 runs and 10 wickets left Zimbabwe looking a depleted side, both in the personnel and mental strength departments and sparked introspection of a drastic nature when they reached home.  

Recent form
There's not much to speak about because Zimbabwe have been absent from the international stage since last September. Then, they came back from T20 and ODI series defeats to beat Pakistan in a Test in Harare and square that series. It was the stuff dreams were made of and then Zimbabwe woke up. 

With not enough cash to allow the game to run smoothly, Zimbabwe traveled to Bangladesh with only training sessions and warm-up matches under their belt. A practice match on arrival against a Bangladesh Invitation side gave Taylor the confidence and his team had some momentum. 

Hearts stopped when they lost to Hong Kong even though Zimbabwe did not play badly in the last-ball thriller. They capped off their preparation with a victory over Afghanistan. Given the subcontinental team's extraordinary rise, Zimbabwe will regard that as a coup and hope it's a sign that can pull off a few more in the next week.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent