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Their weakness at the top of the order is obvious but few solutions are forthcoming
Firdose Moonda in Harare
April 26, 2013
One of the Zimbabwean players joked that the reason the current team has so many bowling allrounders is because "we don't trust our batting". The first three innings of this series will explain why.
Zimbabwe have had to crawl out of tricky positions in all of them - 65 for 3 and 16 for 3 in the first Test and 47 for 3 in this one. It's obvious they have a problem at the top but before examining how they can solve it, they need to understand its cause.
In this series it is explained by one man: Robiul Islam. The seamer has given the top-order a thorough working over and put on an exemplary display of swing bowling. His method is consistently effective: good length, angled in and moving away.
He tempts batsmen into getting forward and trying to drive and in so doing takes the edge. Both Zimbabwe's openers, Vusi Sibanda and Regis Chakabva, were dismissed in that fashion. But it is what he does mentally that is equally destructive. He tests patience through tight lines. His odd short ball and sporadic fuller one ensure batsmen don't settle and, most impressively, he is fit.
Robiul's first spell lasted 11 overs, although he did have the lunch break to separate the first one from the other ten. He took a break four overs before tea and was back on immediately afterwards for another four-over spell. Then he came on late in the day for final four-over burst and landed a good few effort balls as a show of his stamina.
No batsman would be disgraced succumbing to a bowler of this quality and Zimbabwe's frontmen are no different. Top-order batsmen playing for far bigger countries all struggle to some degree against the moving ball.
It's what else they do that matters. Those who develop the temperament to hang around and the techniques to score runs in other ways, blossom. The problem is that Zimbabwe have not got those players at the moment.
Perhaps Zimbabwe play too infrequently against bowlers of Robiul's class for a regular opener like Sibanda to make sustained progress. Having only cobbled together 113 runs in his last seven innings, he is a concern but so is the man on the other end.
Zimbabwe are struggling to replace Tino Mawoyo, who was establishing himself as Sibanda's partner in the West Indies before he was injured. It has brought their depth under the microscope and so far, there has been precious little to examine.
|Zimbabwe are struggling to replace Tino Mawoyo, who was establishing himself as Sibanda's partner in the West Indies before he was injured|
Both men used in this series are not openers by trade. Timycen Maruma, who played the first Test but then picked up a knee niggle, is a middle-order batsman. He finished the Logan Cup as the fourth-highest run-scorer with an average of 51.80 and he showed he has the disposition to cope at the highest level.
Although he did not score many runs, he was willing to spend time at the crease. Zimbabwe could to worse than try him again but, if they want to reward Maruma for a solid domestic showing, it would seem sensible to do so in the position he has done well in.
Chakabva was brought in for this match in place of Maruma. He has two of the fingers on his left-hand strapped together as he recovers from an injury so he cannot keep wicket, but he was deemed fit to open the batting.
He has only done the job once for his franchise in the past season and it did not go well. He scored 28 and 1 on that occasion and finished the summer mid-table on the run-scorers list. Chakabva did not even score a century in the last season so only the experience of three Tests could be used as a reason for him leapfrogging ahead of Sean Williams (one Test) or the uncapped Sikanda Raza and Chamu Chibhabha.
Those are three options Zimbabwe may consider through the rest of their winter programme if Mawoyo does not recover in time for series against Sri Lanka and Pakistan. Williams was heavily touted for this Test but would have probably been used at No. 3, not to open, and Hamilton Masakadza could have been asked to move up one.
It's understandable why Zimbabwe did not gamble with that. Masakadza, although his runs so far do not support this claim, is one of their best batsman and oldest hands. Team management cannot be faulted for wanting to bat him where he is most comfortable.
Including Raza would have required a similar shift to accommodate him in the middle-order. Judging by the amount of time the Pakistani-born batsman has spent working with batting coach Grant Flower in the nets, it seems he is certain for a debut at some stage but it will need some reworking of the batting order to find a spot for him.
Chibhabha is an occasional opener, who could have been a stand-in. He had a fairly good first-class season, finishing just inside the top 10 run-scorers in the first-class competition with an average of 40.63 and two hundreds.
Zimbabwe also have two youngsters worth monitoring. Brian Chari and Kevin Kasuza are 21 and 19 years old respectively and both have shown promise. Kasuza averaged 35.00 this season and played regular for the Mountaineers, while Chari found the going tougher but established himself at Tuskers. Mawoyo mentioned both as possibilities but advised against rushing them into international cricket while they are still finding their feet domestically.
That leaves Zimbabwe with few options for the immediate term and the danger of exposing the middle order too early continues to exist. The top-order failings also revealed their over-reliance on Brendan Taylor and the middle order, who have, for now, rescued them. That will not always be the case and Zimbabwe will be pushed to find openers they can trust as they face opposition who can exploit that weakness.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondentFeeds: Firdose Moonda
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