Bangladesh fightback goes to plan
Three days ago, Zimbabwe were readying themselves to win consecutive Tests for the first time in 12 years. Now, Bangladesh are in a strong position to record a maiden victory in the country and square a series they seemed destined to lose.
The turnaround has been as emphatic as it was unexpected. Bangladesh have put in an improved all-round performance, led by their strike bowler Robiul Islam and followed up through the senior batsmen.
The playing field has levelled too, literally. Members of both camps confirmed a "much better" pitch in the second Test, compared to the one that was used in the first. The sideways movement and uneven bounce is gone. There is still something in it for the bowlers to make use of but an enterprising batsman can reap rewards.
Shakib Al Hasan did so in both innings. He left well, accelerated at the right times and even though he gave his wicket away twice, he formed the spine the others needed. He would have been one of those that was chastened by the showing a week ago and took it upon himself to fix some of the failing of the first Test.
"We were disappointed after the first Test, in all facets, but in particular our batting," Corey Richards, the Bangladesh fielding coach, said. "We thought we had good plans and the guys wanted up to show how good they have been recently, because they were so good for us in Sri Lanka. So, they were pretty embarrassed and there was a general hunger to do better. Fortunately a bit of experience showed in Shakib and Mushfiqur Rahim."
Bangladesh are 272 runs ahead and have five wickets in hand, which puts them in prime position to bat Zimbabwe out of the match. But they have been known to deal with expectation poorly in the past. This time, Richards said team management have a plan to ensure they are not overwhelmed.
"Individually we've got what we feel is a goal-setting plan and the players have had a lot of buy-in to that," he said "They are pretty simple and realistic goals and that makes it a lot easier to know where you are heading."
The immediate one is to get "a lead of over 400," Richards said. "Not too many teams in the history of cricket have chased over 400 but whatever we get from here on in will be difficult to get."
Stephen Mangongo, Zimbabwe's interim coach, disagreed. "There is nothing to stop us batting one and a half days and chasing the target," he said. The evidence of the last innings may contradict that statement. Zimbabwe batted 96 overs and their top-order lasted for fewer than 23 but Mangongo was confident they will rectify that in the second dig.
"With have got faith in the top-order, that's why they are in the team," he said. "Some guys have been in the doldrums for some time and they are due for some runs. We are still in it big time." Some guys like Vusi Sibanda and Hamilton Masakadza are who he might be referring to and they have only a few hours to come up with a plan to negate Robiul.
It could mean that Zimbabwe will have to depend on the middle- and lower-order, as they have so far, but they will take heart from knowing another of that lot has returned to form. Elton Chigumbura recorded his highest Test score and changed the course of the Zimbabwe innings by scoring quicker than the rest, something Mangongo has urged him to keep doing.
"Elton is a strokeplayer and we want to give him the role of the enforcer - to liberate him and allow him to play his natural game," he said. "When he came in yesterday evening with 15 overs to go, playing his shots, orthodox cricket people would have said he was mad. He looks like a fool when it doesn't pay off but he is an attacking player and we want him to play that way."
Another member of the squad who has been urged to do what feels most natural is Shingi Masakadza. He opened the bowling with success and with Keegan Meth unable to bowl so far, he will have to play a major part in ending Bangladesh's innings early. "Shingi was always out-and-out away swing bowler and someone who hits the deck hard," Mangongo said. "He has been trying to get the ball to come in so we've gone back to basics. We've told him to run in, hit the deck and get the ball to move away and it's working."
Not everything about Zimbabwe cricket is doing the same. After dominating in the first Test, they are scrambling in this one and they already seem to have a ready-made excuse if things don't go their way. "We are building. We don't have a team at the moment," Mangongo said. "There are a lot of hungry players out there and we will only know who the best are when the guys put their hands up consistently."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent