Zimbabwe's mindset ideal for growth
If performance is the best yardstick to judge progress, then Zimbabwe have progressed extraordinarily since they last played a Test match in 2005. Their victory against Bangladesh was composed, convincing, confident and, most importantly, collective.
No one can be singled out for having had a disappointing match and while there were stand-out innings or spells, the bulk of the work was done by the team as a unit. Without Tino Mawoyo and Vusi Sibanda's century partnership upfront, Hamilton Masakadza may not have scored his second Test hundred. Without Elton Chigumbura and Chris Mpofu containing the batsmen, Brian Vitori and Kyle Jarvis may not have been able to be as attacking. Without Tatenda Taibu and Craig Ervine's supportive knocks, Brendan Taylor would not have been able to make a sporting declaration when he did.
Although all of these feats were achieved against a modest, and even regressive, opposition, they paint a positive picture about the future of Zimbabwe as a Test team. In particular, they highlight three key areas that will serve Zimbabwe well in the future and two that need to be improved if the country hopes to keep developing the game.
Perhaps the most promising aspect of the match was in the way the new-ball bowlers created and maintained and pressure, and in so doing, plucked opposition wickets. Both bowlers on debut but bowled with the maturity of experienced internationals. They complement each other in a manner similar to Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel, with Vitori presenting the batsmen with the challenge of swing, and Jarvis relying on pace and variations in length.
Excited locals are already saying that Vitori and Jarvis could become the Donald and Pollock or Walsh and Ambrose of the Zimbabwe team. It's too early for any such lofty conclusions to be made, but if the pair is well-managed, they could start writing their own success story. Brendan Taylor has already talked about using them in bursts of six overs each, to come in and puncture a line-up while the rest of the attack pinches them for runs.
If Zimbabwe are serious about applying the squeeze on their opposition, they will have to lift their fielding standards to what they once were. Four catches were put down - most of them in the slips or gully area - and while the ground work was not especially poor, it did not reach the standards the country once prided themselves on.
With Taylor taking charge for the first time, it could be an aspect that he will need to develop in terms how he sets his fields. He showed that he has an aggressive mindset, putting men around the bat when he thought it necessary and usually getting it right. His bowling changes were predictable, but it will make little difference if the batsmen know what to expect every time and are still prised out.
His declaration showed the most promise about his abilities as a leader, because it showed the faith he had in the men around him. It came at a time when other captains may have batted on, to be absolutely sure that the opposition were out of the match and, in so doing, created a greater opportunity for a draw. His assertion that the bowlers would need four sessions to get ten wickets didn't show doubt in their ability, but emphasised his realistic approach. It was also an affirmation of his confidence in their ability to defend a tough, but gettable total.
With Taylor at the helm and a historic win complete, Zimbabwe's mindset may be different as they go forward. The batting has matured, with many of the players having been around for years and finally starting to carve their own paths at the crease, instead of simply playing a frantic survival game. They have grown up and settled in, perhaps also as a result of Alan Butcher giving them "some love" when he took over as coach and nurturing their ambitions, instead of lambasting them every time they failed. With Taylor and Butcher, their already strong sense of community has become even better defined and the players' attitudes seem healthier than ever.
On the whole, the squad seems to have been injected with more purpose and potency, probably largely because of the length of their absence from Test cricket and the schedule of one-off matches they will be involved in for the foreseeable future. Unlike a two or three-match series, lone Tests present the need to go for broke upfront. Such shotgun series have faults in that they don't create the atmosphere a traditional Test rivalry and end just as they have started to create interest, but, for Zimbabwe they could have advantages.
Often, they were thought of as too polite and courteous to be fierce international competitors. With Tests only coming in singles now, they will have no choice but to put aside their feelings of friendship and become harder, tougher cricketers. Test cricket has managed to become sexy once again, with even younger fans expressing their preference for the longest format. So the more Zimbabwe can collect wins, or even hard-fought defeats, the greater the chance of attracting more interest, larger broadcasting deals and eventually longer series. The one-off Test gives them nothing more than a lick of the red cherry, not a whole bite, but it may enough to make their appetite for it swell.
With growth the main theme in Zimbabwe cricket, infrastructure is one of the key things that could hold them back. Facilities at the main stadiums in Harare and Bulawayo are of international standard, barring a few things like floodlights, which in fact could prove a lucrative addition to the facilities. Pylons have been up in Harare, but they stand naked, apparently because the actual lights are stuck at customs. If they ever reach the ground, day-night games become a possibility, something Zimbabwe has never had before. That will create the environment for bigger crowds, and eventually bigger viewership and broadcast deals.
It's important that Zimbabwe does not see different formats of the game in isolation; if they grow as an ODI side, or their domestic Twenty20 competition attracts bigger names, the spin-offs from that, financial or otherwise, can only beneficial to their Test side. The sport, as a whole, has already managed to integrate different sectors of the population and with interest from all race groups instead of just the minority one, it has a bigger pool from which to generate resources. It's important that these resources are managed well, so that smaller provincial grounds can be upgraded, existing facilities can be maintained and improved, and players can be well paid. With everything they are putting into their performance, financial rewards could be the yardstick by which future commitment could be measured.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent