Zimbabwe eye match-time in fight to stay relevant
Australia are gearing up for Tests against a team that has not lost at home in over four years - India; England are undergoing generational change as Joe Root takes over from Alastair Cook; South Africa's preparations for the Champions Trophy have seen them reach No.1 on the ODI rankings and they are now fine-tuning against the No. 3 side - New Zealand; Pakistan are in the midst of their T20 showpiece, and Zimbabwe? Zimbabwe are about to play Afghanistan for the fourth time in three years. Welcome to the future of cricket.
This is what things could look like post the current FTP, when, if the 9-3 Test split is agreed upon, Zimbabwe and Afghanistan will become even more familiar with each other than they already are. Ireland will join their club, and although all three of them should be able to look forward to regular fixtures against their other nine Full Members, they will have to get used to forming a second tier of sorts. Afghanistan and Ireland won't mind too much - it is their chance to play with the big boys - but Zimbabwe are understood to be more than just a little put out by the prospect.
They already feel like outsiders looking in, and their fixture list will keep them that way. Zimbabwe are not due to play anyone until July, when they should visit Sri Lanka. They host West Indies before heading into the World Cup qualifiers next March, and unless their fixture list fills up fast, they will be woefully short of match time. That is why they are reaching out to Afghanistan - and are also reportedly in talks with Scotland - and why they are trying to play against as many A teams as possible.
Zimbabwe need matches, and they need them desperately if only to figure out who their best are. To say they have very little idea of that is putting it mildly. To that end, Zimbabwe have named a squad that includes six changes from the one that played in a triangular series against Sri Lanka and West Indies in November. That's almost half the squad that is different, and it suggests they are still very much in a look-and-see phase.
The most notable exclusions are Hamilton Masakadza, Tinashe Panyangara and Sean Williams, who all failed fitness tests. Williams has a back injury and should be recalled upon recovery, provided he passes a second test while Panyangara, who has not played any cricket since the tri-series, will retake his test on Friday. Chamu Chibhabha and Brian Chari have struggled for form, although Chari scored an unbeaten 84 in the most recent round of List A matches.
In their places, Zimbabwe have picked from some of their most in-form players from the series against Afghanistan A. Although they lost 1-4, Ryan Burl was the highest run-scorer with 266 runs at 53.20 and could not be ignored. Burl notched up over 100 runs more than his nearest challenger, Innocent Kaia, also from Zimbabwe, who was not selected. Instead, Zimbabwe looked to add bowlers who performed against Afghanistan A despite an obvious lack of penetration. Tendai Chatara and Nathan Waller were their joint highest wicket-takers with six each, and fourth overall. They were picked alongside Wellington Masakadza, 19-year old left-arm seamer Richard Ngarava, and Solomon Mire, whose return is the most interesting.
Mire was talked up as the next big thing - a Lance Klusener of sorts - ahead of the 2015 World Cup. He played five matches and did not make anything like the impact he was expected to before choosing to stay in Australia and play grade cricket. He has only recently returned to Zimbabwe and made himself available for international cricket.
The indication is that Zimbabwe need someone (else) in the Elton Chigumbura mould so that if Chigumbura, who has most recently played as a batsman only, needs to be dropped, they don't lack a seam-bowling allrounder. Mire's worth is chief among all the things Zimbabwe want this series to reveal.
So is appeasing the country's sports minister, who has voiced his disapproval with the state of Zimbabwean cricket to the point where he has asked for "something drastic" to take place to improve things. "We are extremely worried by the performance of our cricket teams, especially when they are playing Associate nations," Makhosini Hlongwane, the sports minister, was quoted as saying in The Herald.. "Zimbabwe should work hard to improve its rankings among Test-playing nations and should move away from being the whipping boys of cricket."
That's not an exaggeration, and Afghanistan are the best evidence of it. Zimbabwe have played Afghanistan in three ODI series since July 2014 and not won any of them. They drew the first, 2-2 at home, lost the second 3-2, also at home, and were then defeated 3-2 in Sharjah in the third. Zimbabwe may take heart from the level of competitiveness they showed in all those rubbers - they came back from 2-nil down to draw level in the UAE - but the fact that even their A side has struggled against Afghanistan's next-best does not bode well for World Cup qualification, especially as Afghanistan will be one of the teams they will be up against.
Afghanistan have already shown they have enough in the tank to challenge some of the more established international outfits and recently narrowly lost a series to Bangladesh 1-2. They don't even need the A sides and their international outfit to overlap as much as Zimbabwe do and could leave out the top three wicket-takers from the A team's recent win in Zimbabwe - Nawaz Khan, Abdullah Adil and Fazal Niazai - for the series proper. They have called on Aftab Alam and Samiullah Shenwari to join the ranks.
With recent history on their side, Afghanistan can only look to this series as another opportunity to make a case to be considered for more matches. They already have recent developments at the ICC on their side. If the ODI league and new Test structure materialise, Afghanistan and Ireland will be the greatest beneficiaries, and unless Zimbabwe step up soon, they may find that even those two countries don't want to have too much to do with them.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent