Both teams make mental adjustments for Test
After three days of absorbing Test cricket, it's difficult to believe that these teams have, between them, not played this format for 85 months. Assisted by a pitch that has been good for batting but not torturous for the bowlers, Zimbabwe and Bangladesh have tussled through nine competitive sessions, leaving the cynics with little to complain about.
The transition may have looked seamless but just like a duck coasting along a lake, there is a lot more going on under the surface to ensure the bird stays afloat. So far, neither side has had to resort to frantic paddling, which may yet come, but they have paid careful attention to making small adjustments, most of them in the mind.
"Our batsmen worked really hard to discover the mindset required to bat for long periods," Zimbabwe coach Alan Butcher told ESPNcricinfo. "They've played a lot of four-day cricket but it's not the same pressure or intensity."
Zimbabwe's top four showed remarkable maturity in their first innings, playing watchfully and unhurriedly despite it being their first Test innings in almost six years. Although they were assisted by inconsistent Bangladesh bowling, their judgement of when to leave and when to play stood out as one of the features of their innings.
However, their late collapse in the first innings raised questions about their resilience and ability to negotiate pockets of pressure that the bowlers created even though the bulk of their wickets fell because of poor shot selection, with Tinotenda Mawoyo, Vusi Sibanda and Brendan Taylor all chasing wide deliveries "In Test cricket, you have to make the opposition bowl you out, and we haven't done that," Butcher said.
He thinks the amount of one-day cricket Zimbabwe have played at international level may have had some impact on the way the batsmen approach certain situations. "You take more chances in one-day cricket and there's the opportunity to play more shots because you are required to score at a higher rate," he said. "Sometimes we have had poor shot selection because of that in this Test."
If Zimbabwe were disappointed by the way they gave wickets away, Bangladesh will be furious, because they are guilty of it to a much greater degree. Mahmudullah and Mushfiqur Rahim's needless pulls saw them caught on the legside while Mohammad Ashraful and Shakib Al Hasan played nothing shots to balls they could have dealt with differently. Stuart Law said both were unhappy with the way they got out but wouldn't dwell too much on why they opted for those strokes, instead acknowledging that their contributions were vital to a batting line-up that has had to adjust on two fronts for this match.
"The big thing for us is that we are playing in a different part of the world that we don't play in that often and that requires a different technique," he said. "With a bit more grass on the wicket, batsmen need to have sharp footwork and some of our left-handers haven't had that."
Bangladesh had little time to familiarise themselves with conditions, arriving in the country the day before a practice match, which they lost. They played at the Academy in Harare on a tricky pitch which Law said "went up and down and everywhere" and that would only have served to put doubts in their minds about the track they would have to play the Test on.
Bangladesh, as a unit, have been known to get demoralised quickly and have been seen as mentally weak by other sides. On tour, the short ball has been a major factor in their submission to other teams.
Law believes they are making leaps in overcoming those stereotypical weaknesses. "There has definitely been a mental adjustment," he said. "We are better prepared to play the short ball. In the past, I think people prepared as though they were going to play on the subcontinent and it's nice to have a net where you are middling the ball, but you also have to get out of your comfort zone and face a few bouncers. It won't happen overnight, but some of our batsman played the short ball well. Someone like Ash [Ashraful] showed it today, he showed great application and a lot of patience."
Ashraful looked well set for a century and will be mad at himself for giving his wicket away when he was well set. Law was not one to lambast him though. "We have to give the kid a break, he played a poor shot, but others also did," Law said. "Without his 73, we would have been in trouble but now we are in this contest, we are not dead and buried."
Law also identified Bangladesh captain Shakib as one of the players who "adjusts better to different conditions, because he has a "simple game." With a captain who can see the bigger picture instead of getting himself and his team into a flap when a small thing goes wrong, Law thinks Bangladesh are gearing up for a more competitive period in international cricket, especially with Shakib having been part of the leaning process that came with their previous defeats. "If you lose games of cricket and you don't learn from it, there is something wrong, but this team has learnt and they know that we have to stand up and fight, if we are backed into a corner that's what we must do. The guys are already talking about chasing 280 or 300."
Bangladesh aren't the only ones talking about going for the kill. Zimbabwe also have plans for a target they think they will be able to defend and it is somewhere in the same region. Winning their comeback Test would put them firmly on the road to recovery and will ensure they would exceed expectations, especially in terms of this format, for now. "There wouldn't have been many people who would have thought that I could sit here being disappointed about some aspects in what has been a good performance so far," Butcher said. "They didn't expect us to make the transition so fast," he said. "But now that that we've done that, we've got greedy and we want to do more."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent