African neighbours to end nine-year hiatus
"Shucks, I can't remember when the last time we played a Test against them was."
Hashim Amla's admission that his memory does not include a fixture in whites featuring Zimbabwe is not surprising. He has never played a match against them - a fact that reveals how much time has lapsed since the neighbours tussled on the Test stage.
Nine years. Long enough for some to forget, but not long enough for others.
"I remember it. I was part of the 54 all out," Zimbabwe batsman Hamilton Masakadza said, though the memory had no effect on his ever-present grin. "At the team meeting, I said to the guys, 'Kallis is struggling to find his inswinger, so look out for the one that goes the other way.' That's what Masakadza was watching for when he shouldered arms and was trapped in front by one that came in.
By then Zimbabwe were deep into their slide at 33 for 5. Only Stuart Matsikenyeri managed to get into double figures, Dion Ebrahim had become Makhaya Ntini's 200th Test victim and Brendan Taylor had given Mark Boucher his 300th Test dismissal. "I was so angry with myself, when I got back to the change room I hit myself on the head with my bat and I almost knocked myself out," Taylor said. "It was wide and I chased it."
Perhaps Masakadza and Taylor's recollection of that match and series, which Zimbabwe lost 2-0 in South Africa, is so vivid because a few months later both would have thought their Test career over. After innings defeats at Newlands and Centurion, Zimbabwe tumbled to four more losses - three by an innings, one by ten wickets - to New Zealand and India at home. Once their streak of shame reached six matches, Zimbabwe cricket's administrators saw no choice but to voluntarily suspend their own Test status to try to stop the bleeding.
While the Zimbabwean whites were yellowing from disuse, South Africa played 55 Tests, won their first series in England and Australia since readmission, and began to mount a successful challenge for the newly introduced trophy of Test cricket, the mace. All Zimbabwe did in that time was wait. And play one-day cricket. And lose. Most of the time.
Occasionally Zimbabwe were invited to play in South Africa's domestic competitions but that did not provide them with the rung they needed to make the step up. To really improve they needed economic recovery, to build bridges with some of the men who cut themselves off before the decline, and competition against players who were closer to international level. Dollarisation, the return of Grant Flower, Heath Streak and others, and home series against the likes of New Zealand and Australia A are what eventually helped Zimbabwe back onto their feet, but they have legs that continue to shake.
Since their Test comeback in 2011, Zimbabwe have played just ten matches. In that period South Africa have played 28. Zimbabwe managed to win a one-off Test against Bangladesh in 2011; South Africa have only lost one series and achieved the No.1. Twice. The match-up between the sides could not be more lopsided.
All Zimbabwe can do is take inspiration from their underdog status to try and prove something. Luckily for them, they were able to get some game time against Afghanistan. Unluckily, most of the Test side did not play the two four-day games. Zimbabwe Cricket also announced major restructures less than two weeks before its team's biggest challenge this year - splitting the captaincy and moving the head coach sideways.
While Taylor will still lead in the Test, giving an air of stability, former coach Andy Waller will not be involved at all. Stephen Mangongo is now in charge of the national team. He was a sullen observer at the 25-man training squad's net session on Wednesday, rooted to the sidelines, arms folded and silent, while his men went through their paces.
They did not seem to be taking directions from anyone but everyone appeared to know what to do. Zimbabwe's cricketers have been through these routines so many times in the past - often even when they knew they had no opposition to play but had to remain match-fit - that they operate like clockwork. There isn't much talking. There is a lot of doing.
Much later in the afternoon South Africa turned up at Harare Sports Club for a first look at a ground most of them would never have played on. They would have learned that the pitch for the Test has not even been decided on. Or if it has, no one is saying.
The ground staff have been working on the square for the last month and two pitches have received their attention in preparation for their only Test of the season. Surface no. 2, further right from the clubhouse end, is brown. No. 4, more centrally located, is tinged with green. Those are the two strips in contention for the Test, but given South Africa's pace pack, No. 2 is likelier to get the nod. It will probably still have something for the quicks early on the first morning.
The truth is that conditions cannot nullify the advantage South Africa enjoy. Zimbabwe know that and are simply looking at the fixture as a way to show they can be competitive against the best. South Africa know it too but are trying to play it down.
"Because we are ranked above Zimbabwe, the natural expectation is for us to do better," Amla said. That is not the only reason South Africa are expected to win well inside five days, but with Tests between the nations being so scarce, this indulgence in the pretense of a contest is worth it.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent