A contest with a closely-fought history
Friday, 9 October
Start time 9.30am (0730GMT)
The Big Picture
There always seems an added edge to the contest when Zimbabwe and Ireland meet. They have only played each other seven times in full internationals - six ODIs and a lone T20 - but those games have produced a string of close results, and the odd dollop of controversy. There is virtually nothing to separate these teams, with Zimbabwe's greater Test and international experience countered by Ireland's extensive county connections, and these matches promise to be tightly contested.
They will also add to an ongoing narrative between these cricketing nations that stretches back as far as 1986, when a touring Irish side met a promising schoolboy cricketer named Andy Flower at the very beginning of his career and another youngster named Graeme Hick, who was dropped on single figures in a three-day game at Harare Sports Club and went on to crack a triple hundred.
Sean Williams and Gary Wilson, two of the more feisty members of either side, may remember each other from the 2006 Under-19 World Cup, and no-one can forget the first full international between Ireland and Zimbabwe at the 2007 World Cup, which ended in a heart-stoppingly dramatic tie. Zimbabwe had the better of their last series in Harare in 2010, winning 2-1, but they needed a last-ball six from No. 10 Ed Rainsford to win one of those games and their other victory was by just three wickets. Then, of course, there's the drama of their last meeting in Hobart at the World Cup earlier this year, which included two centuries and 657 runs, but will perhaps always be defined by John Mooney's boot.
Both teams will believe they can open the series with a win. Success for Ireland will help to push their claims for the Full Member fixtures they crave, while Zimbabwe will see a win as proof that they are the best of the rest.
(last five completed matches, most recent first)
In the spotlight
Sean Williams has now scored 2,319 ODI runs at a respectable average of 32.66, yet he has no centuries to go with his 22 fifties. The closest he has come to a one-day hundred was his 96 against Ireland at the 2015 World Cup - a knock which was ended by Mooney's opinion-splitting catch in the deep. Williams averages 51.25 in four ODIs against Ireland, and is on the lookout for some more runs against them as his last fifty came against New Zealand two months ago. He will also have a strong role to play with his left-arm spin. His recent exploits with both bat and ball have pushed him up to 15th in the ICC ODI allrounder rankings.
Paul Stirling and Kevin O'Brien may be Ireland's most devastating batsmen at either end of their top seven, but in order for the visitors to succeed on the sorts of pitches played upon at Harare Sports Club this year they will need the skills of a gritty accumulator. Fortunately for them, they have got just the man in Ed Joyce. Joyce may not have had the happiest season as Sussex captain, a position he has just resigned, but he has scored ODI runs for Ireland with some regularity, averaging 39.00, and his run-a-ball 231 against UAE in the Intercontinental Cup in June was Ireland's highest individual first-class score. He also scored a century the last time he played Zimbabwe, setting up a match-winning total at the World Cup.
Injuries and poor form will help to shape Zimbabwe's playing XI. Hamilton Masakadza has been dropped from their squad, while Graeme Cremer is hobbling around with crutches and a moon-boot and is out of cricket for three weeks after suffering an ankle sprain during the second ODI against Pakistan. Craig Ervine has been batting in the nets and seemed to be moving with ease during a fitness test on Thursday morning after his latest hamstring problem. Zimbabwe have also added Wellington Masakadza, Hamilton's left-arm spinning younger brother, to their squad, but he probably won't play in the first match.
Zimbabwe (possible): 1 Chamu Chibhabha, 2 Brian Chari, 3 Craig Ervine, 4 Sean Williams, 5 Sikandar Raza, 6 Elton Chigumbura (capt), 7 Richmond Mutumbami (wk), 8 Tino Mutumbodzi, 9 Luke Jongwe, 10 Tinashe Panyangara, 11 John Nyumbu.
Ireland did not want to risk aggravating Kevin O'Brien's tweaked hamstring by playing him against Australia at home in August, but he is back to full fitness now and they have no injury worries. Given the conditions, they may want to play offspinner Andy McBrine to partner George Dockrell ahead of seamer Craig Young.
Ireland (possible): 1 Will Porterfield (capt), 2 Paul Stirling, 3 Ed Joyce, 4 Andy Balbirnie, 5 Niall O'Brien (wk), 6 Gary Wilson, 7 Kevin O'Brien, 8 John Mooney, 9 George Dockrell, 10 Tim Murtagh, 11 Andy McBrine.
Pitch and conditions
There has been an awful lot of cricket played on Harare Sports Club's pitches in the last few months, and the groundstaff have had plenty of work to do trying to keep the surfaces fresh. A little more grass on the pitch seemed to suit Zimbabwe during the ODIs against Pakistan, and the pitch prepared for Friday's game had a familiar look to it. There will be movement for the seamers in the morning and help for the spinners in the afternoon, and though the pitch may play a little on the slow side it should still be a decent one for batting between times. The weather has been typically hot and sunny in the lead-up to this game, and the rain seems to have moved away for the moment.
Stats and trivia
- Zimbabwe have won three of the six ODIs between these teams, with Ireland winning two and one match ending in a tie.
- Of these six games, three were decided only in the last over.
- Brendan Taylor is Zimbabwe's leading run-scorer against Ireland, but of the current team Williams tops the table with 205 runs from four innings. Chris Mpofu is Zimbabwe's leading wicket-taker against the Irish in the current squad, with six scalps at 25.66.
- Kevin O'Brien tops both the bowling and batting tables for Ireland against Zimbabwe, with nine wickets at 24.33 and 181 runs at 36.20.
"We've got more expectation on us to win these games against Ireland, so obviously there's a little more pressure on us."
Zimbabwe captain Elton Chigumbura admits that the expectation that Zimbabwe should beat Ireland at home adds a different sort of pressure to this series.
"It's a series away from home against a team that's ranked very close to us, so it's important because we want to keep progressing up the ladder."
Ireland captain Will Porterfield believes a positive result against Zimbabwe could help Ireland's pursuit of greater international exposure.
Liam Brickhill is a freelance journalist based in Cape Town