Can Zimbabwe cap on-field progress with victory?
A cricket aficionado was making plans to attend the Zimbabwe-Pakistan Tests and was battling to secure flights. The only available one out of Bulawayo would be on the fifth afternoon of the second Test. The journeyman consulted with a few others and they all agreed it was probably a safe bet to make the booking. "Zimbabwe won't last five days anyway," they concluded.
In hindsight, it's a good thing the second match was moved to from Bulawayo to Harare and a flight change was required. The new departure date is set for the day after this Test, which is certain to use some of its final day, ends.
Whatever happens in the last exchanges between these two sides, Zimbabwe have far they exceeded expectations by pushing Pakistan beyond what many predicted. For the first time since their Test comeback two years ago, Zimbabwe's progress is evident and that should not be forgotten even if they go on to lose 0-2.
Their batting has put up resistance against both the moving ball and spin. Their bowling has been disciplined, consistent and penetrative, and their fielding, save for a match-turning dropped catch in the first Test, has shown more than just glimpses of the standards it held a few years ago. But the most admirable of their efforts has been the way they've operated as a collective.
Zimbabwe have pulled together in a way that was absent from their ODI showings. United by what they considered a humiliation against India and their off-field problems, Zimbabwe were determined to prove they were worthy. "We put in a lot of work. We held a long camp, we regrouped [after] India and we did our homework. We wanted to show we were better against Pakistan," Brian Vitori said. "It will be good if we can finish with a win here."
That said, Zimbabwe could, and probably should, have been in better position going in to the final day. With a lead of 185 overnight, six wickets in hand and a pitch that Abdur Rehman said played "a lot better" than it had throughout the match, they should have set Pakistan a higher target. "We were looking at about 300-plus, so we ended about 30 or 40 short," Vitori admitted.
Limited run-scoring opportunities frustrated them and accuracy from the seamers meant even though Zimbabwe had experienced batsmen on hand, they could not capitalise. Still, their lead was a handy one considering Pakistan have not successfully chased a total in excess of 200 in close to ten years.
But ill-discipline, some of it no doubt borne out of knowing how close they could come to winning, struck the bowlers too. They overpitched too often, allowed too many boundaries and even though they made breakthroughs, they did not have the cushion of runs to accommodate the leakage.
With only 105 left to defend, Vitori indicated they know their biggest ask will come tomorrow morning. "It will be mainly about discipline. If we starve them of runs, the wickets will come. We're only one away from the tail," Vitori said. 'I really think things are in our favour and we have a slight upper hand."
Optimism is Zimbabwe's most endearing quality and one they have not had in abundance of late, but someone like Vitori embodies it. Having tasted success in their comeback Test and then being challenged by injury and loss of form, he has returned a better bowler than the one he was previously.
"It has been tough. I had to take it upon myself to get ready again and to get fit again," he said. Even then, he had no guarantee he would be reconsidered for the squad and thought his chances of playing a Test this winter were down to zero after the first Test. "The guys bowled so well, I thought I wouldn't get picked but when I was, I knew I had to do well. Another guy was sitting out because of me so I wanted to press hard. I wanted to lead the attack."
Vitori sees his role as doing the same thing in trying to wrap up the match. He expects the surface to deteriorate more "especially if we can hit the cracks", and thinks even Pakistan's wall, Misbah-ul-Haq, could get frustrated if runs dry up. "He's human, he will try something at some point," he said.
But Misbah, more than anyone else, knows what Pakistan will face if they lose. There will be more calls for his head, more calls for drastic changes and perhaps even accusations of underhandedness. For Pakistan, this Zimbabwe tour was supposed to be a much-needed warm-up for the bigger challenge of South Africa.
They may not have been ready for a dogfight of this nature but are claiming they're satisfied with being tested in this way. "We're pleased with the way Zimbabwe are playing because it really gave some of our players a wake-up call," Mohammad Akram, their bowling coach, said.
Still, they would probably have preferred not to be alarmed in this way by a Zimbabwe side whose entire season could be defined by what happens on Saturday morning. It is likely to be their last appearance this year and they will want to summon all the resolve they have to try and make it one their fans will cherish.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent