Zimbabwe must learn quickly
There was a time during Zimbabwe's one-off Test against Pakistan - when they had lost five wickets in their second innings and had not yet erased the deficit - when it looked as though the new darlings of international cricket would fall back into ignominy. Much of the justification for their Test return that the win against Bangladesh in Harare had provided was being wiped away.
Facing Pakistan meant they had to climb one or perhaps two rungs higher on the ladder and even that step-up was exposing their instabilities and causing them to wobble. The ladder could easily come crashing down if they came up against Australia or England in the next few months. Luckily, Zimbabwe do not have to crane their necks that far skyward just yet.
Zimbabwe's return to the longest form of the game has been staggered, so that for the first two years they will play either against Bangladesh, who are on the same level as them, or teams that are just above them, like Pakistan (those who argue with that can simply be reminded Pakistan had not won consecutive Tests in six years till Bulawayo), New Zealand and West Indies. They are being pushed one step further or sideward each time and even though they will only play one-off Tests or two-Test series against each country, it will give them a yardstick for which to measure their progression, or lack thereof.
Zimbabwe did not lose in too embarrassing a fashion against Pakistan. Tatenda Taibu saved their blushes with his fighting half-century and their three quick wickets in Pakistan's second innings saw them lose by a smaller margin than the one Pakistan last defeated them by - 10 wickets in 2002. At the end, they were able to take as many positives as negatives out of the game. Some of the problems that were exposed against Bangladesh recurred, some were rectified and some new, and expected, areas of concern were brought to the fore - all of them can only serve to make Zimbabwean cricket stronger.
The obvious, and most talked about, issue was Zimbabwe's fielding. It had shown signs of lethargy against Bangladesh, when a couple of catches were put down and there was a general sloppiness in saving singles, something that Zimbabwe players have prided themselves on. Against Pakistan, the ability to hold on to the ball was simply appalling, and, as their coach Alan Butcher said, cost them the chance of being competitive. There was no excuse: fielders had enough time, the chances were straightforward and execution should have been simple. Instead, Zimbabwe spilled and spilled; return catches, routine chances to the slips and gifts for the outfielders were all squandered.
It's said that some of the less powerful sides in world cricket, like South Africa were at one stage, zoned in on fielding because it is a skill that can be created, not a talent that one has to have inherently. Zimbabwe understood this too and, before their cricket started going into decline, were renowned for cutting off runs and taking even the tough chances.
With the Bangladesh Test showing that there is now enough talent in Zimbabwe's team, particularly in the bowling department, which has rarely had such a strong seam attack, perhaps they have let themselves slip on the fielding skills side. It's something they will have to work on carefully, because even a strong attack needs to be complimented by committed fielders.
Even when things were going awry in the field, Brendan Taylor can be complimented for his attacking captaincy, which saw him continue to put men around the bat rather than spread the field in defence. Taylor is a young captain, in only his second Test in charge, and is managing an inexperienced side, but he has shown that he will lead with a fearless attitude and take risks were he thinks there can be reward.
In Pakistan's second innings, with Zimbabwe defending just 87 runs, Taylor used Ray Price to open the bowling, because he knew he would be able to take advantage of the rough. Of course, it was to no avail; even though Price snaffled two wickets, Zimbabwe needed more runs, but it showed positive intent from Taylor. He could have let Brian Vitori continue to be bashed around on a pitch that offered him nothing and Pakistan would probably have romped to the win inside 15 overs. Taylor has the attitude of a fighter and he will need to keep that up, even when things get more difficult.
Mindset is proving to be an important factor for the Zimbabwe team, whose batsmen's temperament can be commended for their first-innings effort and then criticised for their second-innings meltdown. Tino Mawoyo showed incredible staying power in his undefeated 163, battling against Saeed Ajmal's doosras, even when he had no idea what he was facing, and seeing off a feisty Pakistan fielding effort, with more words flying out of Adnan Akmal's mouth than those that came from the entire Bangladesh team.
Mawoyo is a young man who has matured greatly in recent times and could form a formidable opening partnership with Vusi Sibanda in the future. Sibanda has also wisened over the years but his insistence on pulling, irrespective of length, has to be dealt with quickly. He has acknowledged that his strength can also be his weakness and that he has to select when to play the shot better. Hamilton Masakadza and Taylor both disappointed in this match but are known commodities while Craig Ervine showed glimpses of his ability in his first-innings 49.
The entire batting line-up was guilty of spooking themselves out in the second innings. They were expecting the pitch to spin like a crazed record when it was, in fact, moving more like a ferris wheel - turning, but doing it gently. Collapses are part of cricket but learning to avoid them is vital. The commotion in Bulawayo was not pretty but it could be forgiven, especially because it came from a team that is still learning and one that already has three centurions in four innings since returning to Test cricket.
What the slide highlighted was that Zimbabwe may have to concentrate on adapting to different conditions quicker. Even though they were playing at home they were unable to adjust to a slower pitch to the one they had played their last Test on. The Harare pitch had more bounce and carry, and became better for batting as the match went on. Bulawayo was the opposite: it got slower and lower and deteriorated. Taylor even suggested that it was a surface Pakistan were more comfortable on, calling it "subcontinental."
The reality is that Vitori and company will bowl on many subcontinent wickets in the future and the batsmen will have to learn to negotiate a crumbling pitch with more fluency and less exasperation. It is a skill that will be learned through experience, something Zimbabwe will gain in time.
They will soon discover that time is not endless and although they are the sweethearts of world cricket now, that status will soon fade if the results don't keep coming. It's an uneasy sort of pressure that befalls Zimbabwe now, as they go into a tricky one-day and Twenty20 series and then host New Zealand. No-one expects them to win all the time, but those same people don't want to see Zimbabwe fight and lose more often than not.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent