Young Pakistan geared for step up
Pakistan would have been forgiven if they had arrived at Queens Sports Club with heavy legs and weary expressions. They touched down in Bulawayo via Dubai and Johannesburg on Friday afternoon and had to put on their game faces immediately to start a two-day tour match on Saturday. The fixture ended in a draw but instead of being allowed to put their feet up on the morning after, they were handed the early training slot on Tuesday.
They could have rubbed their eyes, lumbered lazily through their drills, dragged their bodies through the motions, and generally acted jaded. But, they didn't. The session was driven by enthusiasm, and energy flowed through the initial kicking of a football around to the more intricate fielding moves and then into the nets, where some of them batted a little longer than the usual two-and-a-half hours. That's the value of youth, something Pakistan's squad has in abundance for this tour.
Four of their players yet to make their Test debuts, and five others have played only 24 matches between them. With the next most experienced player, Umar Akmal, having only 15 Test caps, it's safe to say Pakistan are in possession of a bouncing group of boys. "It is exciting," the coach Waqar Younis said. "And it is also easier to deal with them."
With Waqar on his last legs as national coach, a less complicated passage to the exit sign is seemingly what he would prefer - no politics, no infighting, no-one trying to steer anyone in any direction. Waqar believes that's what he has got, too. "A tour like Zimbabwe is a good tour to introduce some youngsters, it's a short tour and it gives them a good opportunity to play top-level cricket," he said. "Youngsters bring a different flair to the game. We have three formats, so we will try to make sure everybody plays."
In some ways, the youthful make-up of the squad could be mistaken for flippancy by Pakistan, who may stand accused of taking Zimbabwe too lightly. Waqar did not take kindly to that notion, having insisted on departure that the series was a significant one. "I have worked for Pakistan for 18 months and this tour is as important to me as any other," he said. "We know that Zimbabwe are eager, hungry and want to prove a point."
Luckily, Pakistan's seemingly inexperienced side has a strong core and sprinkled among their boys, they have some men. Younis Khan is one of them, as the most experienced Test player in the squad. For him, this tour will be about creating the rite of passage for the younger members of the squad to gain experience at the highest level. "I am just going to try all the time to show them [the youngsters] the way, especially in Test cricket," Younis said. "When you are young, you may make some mistakes so my aim is to help them."
Younis has over 5000 Test runs and has played for more than a decade, so he has ingrained in him all the qualities of a respected leader and a fatherly figure. He said he would like to pass some of that knowledge on, because he may not be around to actually demonstrate it for long. "I will be playing for another two or three years," he said. "So, I want to show them [the youngsters] how to be able to score 500 or 600 in a Test match."
With Younis focusing on batting, captain Misbah-ul-Haq chose to zone in on the bowling developments. "Our youngsters are performing well in domestic cricket, especially Junaid Khan and Sohail Khan, who will have to learn to be senior fast bowlers," he said. Junaid took 4 for 62 in the tour match and will shoulder wicket-taking responsibilities into the Test match. He might get an opportunity to bowl in tandem with Sohail Khan, and together they could make an attacking new-ball pair.
The match will be about "trying out different combinations" according to Misbah and reintroducing players like Imran Farhat who last played against England last year and Sohail Tanvir who was last seen against India in 2007. "Winning is important, but this is also about team-building for us," Misbah said. But experimentation is not likely to give way to complacency, as Pakistan showed in their training session - actions that showed Zimbabwe this will be a tougher Test than their previous one, against Bangladesh.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent