Pakistan in Zimbabwe 2013 August 22, 2013

Can Zimbabwe rise above their troubles?

It will take a greater show of character and determination than any Zimbabwe have managed in the recent past for them to put one past Pakistan

In between threats of a boycott, the formation of a players' union and the retirement of a key player, Zimbabwe also have to play some cricket. A two-T20, three-ODI and two-Test series against Pakistan will challenge everything from their skills to their resolve, and could be a litmus test for the sport in the country going forward.

Zimbabwe players, through their newly formed union, have negotiated match fees that are said to be in line with other international teams' standards for this series. Their fans will hope the promise of money in the bank will give them the security needed to perform better than they have in recent times.

They were blanked by a second-string India team in a series that ended just over two weeks' ago, to start new coach Andy Waller's tenure off in unconvincing fashion. Before that, they drew a Test and Twenty20 series and won a three-match ODI rubber against Bangladesh but, overall, results have not been positive for Zimbabwe since they made their Test comeback two years' ago.

The glory of their initial win was shortlived, with Pakistan bringing them back down to earth after they beat Bangladesh in August 2011. Saeed Ajmal made Zimbabwe's batsmen, apart from Tino Mawoyo, appear out of their depth in the only Test, and Pakistan went on to record victories in each of the three ODIs and two T20s played thereafter. Zimbabwe were humbled and realised how much ground they would have to cover to compete against top teams.

Two years have passed since then and Zimbabwe have not improved as much as they would have wanted. They lost series against New Zealand, both at home and away, and West Indies, away, and were barely a factor in the World Twenty20 last year. The board's financial worries have mounted to the point where salaries were delayed, paltry winter contracts were offered - and in the case of Craig Ervine, refused - and bargaining for more money has become more pressing than batting or bowling.

In the words of the country's former sports minister, David Coltart, the national team "morale is low and it is reflecting in their performances". Coltart, a passionate supporter of the game, believes Zimbabwe are capable of more than they have shown but concerns over where the next pay cheque will come from is holding the team back from delivering to their full potential.

That will be difficult for Zimbabwe to do also because they do not have their best players available to them. A week before the series began, Kyle Jarvis, regarded as one of the country's most promising bowlers and a product of the franchise system, announced a premature retirement from international cricket to embark on a county career.

Jarvis' decision will affect many more than just himself. The message he sent to his team-mates is that he does not feel Zimbabwean cricket has a future. If they are feeling the same way, no one can blame them. But they will have to put those thoughts aside to challenge Pakistan.

For the first two days of the series, it may be easier to do. The contest begins with back-to-back T20s and Jarvis did not seem to be part of plans in the shortest format. He was not included in the starting XI for the T20s against Bangladesh with the fit-again Brian Vitori, Tendai Chatara and Tinashe Panyangara tasked with the seam-bowling jobs.

With Prosper Utseya and a clutch of promising young spinners including Natsai Mushangwe and Tinotenda Mutombodzi, Zimbabwe's bowling could hold its own in the shorter formats. Jarvis will be missed in the Tests, especially as Chris Mpofu remains unavailable due to injury. If one of the others can step up, they may prove competitive in that department.

Batting is their worry, especially against spinners, and they will need someone other than captain Brendan Taylor and senior statesman Hamilton Masakadza to perform. Vusi Sibanda and Malcolm Waller are due some runs while Sikandar Raza will look to build on a promising start. The return of Mawoyo, in the longer format, will also boost Zimbabwe's chances.

What's more important than individual performances is that all their players to band together. If they can show the same unity on the field as they are showing off it, they may surprise a few people. But they should be warned anything less than a complete showing will not be good enough. They cannot bank on the overused adage that depending on which Pakistan shows up, they may be in with a chance.

Pakistan are a far more consistent side than their reputation hints at and will have their own goals, apart from winning, on this tour. When Misbah-ul-Haq left South Africa in March, after their series there, his worry was how much game-time his team would have before they next took on Graeme Smith and Co in the UAE in October.

At that time, Pakistan were not scheduled to play any Tests between March and October, so the two matches here will serve as fairly good practice for a far tougher challenge against South Africa. The conditions will not be too much of a test, with Zimbabwe's late winter pitches likely to be flat and slow, especially in Bulawayo, so batsmen who show the right temperament could spend ample time on them.

Their limited-overs squads include some new faces such as quick bowler Anwar Ali and Sohaib Maqsood. After series wins over West Indies in both shorter formats, this tour could be an opportunity for some experimentation, which will be important for Pakistan's development going forward.

For a team that only plays together away from home, this will be another opportunity to bond and form team culture. It may be their focus to work on those things as part of a bigger picture because history, especially the history of two years ago, suggests Pakistan will dominate the series. It will take a show of character and determination, which Zimbabwe have not been able to muster with real conviction in the recent past, to change that.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent