A test of Zimbabwe's progress
Zimbabwe are gearing up for their third inbound tour in as many months as they host New Zealand from Saturday. For some other teams, it would be international overload but for a side that are eager to play and desperate to learn and improve, it's perfect. With two Twenty20s, three ODIs and another one-off Test, there is a good enough mix of cricket to judge what progress has been made since their stirring return to Test cricket in August.
If Bangladesh provided Zimbabwe with the opportunity to prove they belong at the highest level, Pakistan showed them how far behind the top tier they really are. After winning fans, gladdening hearts and building confidence against a regressive Bangladesh side, they were sent a few steps back by a Pakistan team that had an uncharacteristically controversy free tour and played like a unit from start to finish.
Now, New Zealand have arrived, providing a challenge that is different to that of the two sub-continental sides. While flair and flamboyance is how the Asians like to play their cricket, New Zealand bring a more clinical, disciplined and effective game. In some ways, it's a more even contest for Zimbabwe, who will likely need to prepare less for the unexpected burst of colour that a Tamim Iqbal or Sohail Tanvir can produce and more for grafting and grinding. They will have to put in sustained effort and not rely on mere moments of magic.
Alan Butcher, Zimbabwe's coach, said that the New Zealand series would likely turn out to be the best yardstick to measure his men because of their style of play. The performances against Pakistan would have set Zimbabwe back a little but it may not only have adverse effects. With the spotlight turned the other way, Zimbabwe's cricketers have been able to return to their domestic franchises, play in a few low-key Logan Cup matches, fine-tune skills, regroup and get ready for a mini-restart.
Preparation has been a key part of Zimbabwe's approach so far. Before they hosted Bangladesh, they played in a tri-series against South Africa A and Australia A and in two first-class matches against Australia. Although the results did not go their way, the match practice paid off and Brendan Taylor is hoping for much of the same come New Zealand.
"We've put in some great preparation and our confidence is good," he told ESPNcricinfo. "I understand that New Zealand haven't had any cricket for a few months, so hopefully we'll have a bit of an upper hand." New Zealand have not played since their World Cup semi-final defeat to Sri Lanka in March, although they have held training camps at home and in Pretoria. The value of time in the middle cannot be underestimated though, as South Africa, who have had a similar time away from the game as New Zealand, showed in their T20 against Australia.
New Zealand will have to start straight from the blocks but Zimbabwe have had two series to assess areas that need improvement. A problem that started against Bangladesh and exploded against Pakistan was their butter fingers. "The fielding really let us down against Pakistan. We just put down too many chances," Taylor said. "We've gone away and ironed that out and worked on it so we should put on a much better performance."
Since both the batting and bowling showed great promise, Zimbabwe have maintained relative continuity in their selection. Their T20 squad includes 20-year old legspinner Natsai Mushangwe, who has only played 16 domestic T20 matches. He has a good first-class record, with 76 wickets from his 26 matches and is seen as replacement for Graeme Creamer, who is still on the mend after a knee injury. "We've really missed Graeme, especially in terms of adding a different dynamic to our bowling attack so Natsai is in the squad," Taylor said. "He has heaps of talent and a very bright future."
Ray Price, Prosper Utseya and Malcolm Waller provide the other slow bowling options, while Zimbabwe have four seamers in the experienced Chris Mpofu, pacy Kyle Jarvis, brave Keegan Meth and all-round Elton Chigumbura. Left-armer Brian Vitori still has a shin niggle and Zimbabwe are hoping he will be fit for the Test. "We can't wait for him to get back to full fitness after he came onto the scene with a big bang, but luckily we have found some depth in a few other seamers now so we that's good for us," Taylor said.
The batting is also loaded with experience in Hamilton Masakadza, Vusi Sibanda, Tatenda Taibu, Charles Coventry and Taylor himself. The captain confirmed he will bat lower down the order in limited-overs with Chamu Chibhabha opening."Chamu is more suitable at the top in a team context," Taylor said. "I'll be in the middle and we'll also have Charles Coventry there. It's great to have him back in the fold and I know he is dying to perform." Forster Mutizwa is also in the line-up. He has had a fantastic start to the season with scores of 73 not out, 164 not out and 83 for the Eagles.
Zimbabwe have not seen much of New Zealand in recent years, except for a match each in the 2010 World Twenty20 and the World Cup earlier this year. They have also had a series against the New Zealand A side last year.
Three unofficial Tests were contested between the two sides, of which New Zealand A won two. Three of the players in New Zealand's T20 side, Graeme Alridge, Martin Guptill and James Franklin, played in those matches while Chris Martin, who will play in the one-off Test, also featured. For Zimbabwe, Tino Mawoyo made his name in that series as their highest run-scorer while Waller also had strong showings.
The series was an important step in Zimbabwe's eventual return to the Test arena and Taylor said they learnt a lot from it. "We got some video footage from there which has also helped us prepare for this series," he said. "And Chris Harris, who is with our Under-19s, has also been doing some work with us. We're looking forward to a competitive series."
The ability to challenge has not been an area in which Zimbabwe have lacked this season. They matched Pakistan in the first innings of the one-off Test, and should have won one of the T20s and one of the ODIs. It's the lack of belief to get over the line that has held Zimbabwe back a little. Their over-cautious approach is largely the cause of a fear of failure but they realise the need to find some self-assurance is pressing. That is something they have to discover quickly, because their next assignment will be away from the comfort of home, in New Zealand, and they will have to go there a settled and secure unit. Zimbabwe have given the locals much to cheer this season but, before they jet off, they will want to give them concrete victories and not just moments to celebrate.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent