Bangladesh, Zimbabwe begin bottom-of-the-table scrap
In a year of storied rivalries, one contest that is unlikely to turn too many heads will begin shortly. Bangladesh versus Zimbabwe is a bottom-of-the-table scrap, an unglamorous match-up that is unlikely to be remembered for too long. The nine previous Tests have thrown up some uneven battles but the eagerness to gain bragging rights in Zimbabwean conditions and Bangladesh's recent form will make it an even contest.
Since their 130-run loss to Zimbabwe in Harare more than two years ago, Bangladesh have drawn two out of eight Tests. It is a marked improvement, and a better record than Zimbabwe, who lost all five Tests during the same period, including two against West Indies last month. Around the same time as Zimbabwe's West Indies tour, Bangladesh were making Sri Lanka sweat in their backyard.
Shakib Al Hasan's return is a major boost for the visitors, too. The allrounder will probably play as a batsman in the first Test, but it is unlikely that he can be kept out of action as a bowler for long. Tamim Iqbal could also recover in time for the first Test, while the competition for the other opening batsman's position will help Bangladesh. A settled middle-order and some good spinners are their other strong areas.
But Zimbabwe have a chance to hit back through Bangladesh's weakness - pace bowling. Rubel Hossain, Shahadat Hossain, Robiul Islam and Sajidul Islam are not automatic choices and in Harare, where the surface is hard and offers true bounce, the home side could start well against a weak new-ball attack. They already have a 3-0 record in three Test matches against Bangladesh at the venue, where both Tests will be played.
In previous Tests, Bangladesh have struggled to handle the Zimbabwe pace bowlers and even newcomers like Brian Vitori and Kyle Jarvis have used pace and seam movement to good effect. Over the last two years, however, the perception about them being poor players of pace has changed. By failing and succeeding against pace bowlers from West Indies, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, although in sub-continental conditions, they have learned much to take to Harare.
The visitors will be eager to live up to their competitive reputation. With the advances in their stature, especially those who have become regulars in various domestic Twenty20 leagues, the expectations from some high-profile Bangladeshi cricketers will be sky-high. The fans back home understand that the team has improved since their last series against Zimbabwe, and will expect a series win.
For the average Bangladesh fan, the disappointment of a loss to Zimbabwe is as acute as that of an India or Pakistan fan when the two arch-rivals play. While there is no cultural or historical reference to the contest between the two countries, there is plenty of competition. The grainy YouTube video where Mahmudullah and Brendan Taylor are in a sledging battle looks tame but their last encounter will lend some context to the off-field battle. The Zimbabwe pace bowlers were slighted when Tamim had branded Jarvis "ordinary" and reacted gleefully after the victory.
While the stakes will not be as high as the Ashes or the other summit battles, the series provides cricket with another dimension of sporting rivalry, which doesn't need the best of conditions, or the best players. A scrappy, less-than-perfect competition between two less-than-perfect teams will be an indication of how healthy cricket is around the edges.
Mohammad Isam is ESPNcricinfo's Bangladesh correspondent. He tweets here