Onus on Zimbabwe to narrow gulf
August 9-13, 2014
Start time 1000 local (0800 GMT)
Contests in cricket do not get much cosier than those between neighbours and sharing a border on the same continent is the closest South Africa and Zimbabwe's cricket teams have in common. In every other department, they are galaxies apart.
South Africa occupy top spot in the Test rankings; Zimbabwe lie one away from the very bottom. South Africa have the No.1 ranked Test batsman, bowler and allrounder in their squad. Zimbabwe's highest-rated player sits at No.29. South African cricket is a product that functions within a modern, professional structure; Zimbabwe's remains just a game which is played by hopefuls who dream of a better future, despite the many attempts, administrative and financial, to derail that.
Mismatch is the only word that can be accurately used to describe the upcoming contest between them and any pre-match hype was thought to be at risk of drowning in the gulf that separates cricket's have's from its have-not's. But there are flashes of excitement, mostly in the eyes of the Zimbabwean players.
They have not played against South Africa's Test side in nine years and have not hosted them in 13. So far, Zimbabwe have gone out of their way to keep South Africa happy. They have provided Hashim Amla's side with as much as any touring team would want and rescheduled their own training sessions to accommodate South Africa.
But Zimbabwe need to be careful in that regard. South Africa have shown no signs of being romanced by those gestures. All their talk has been about playing with intensity and aiming to build on the winning formula they unearthed in Sri Lanka, with what they are calling a new bunch of players. The reality is that there have been only two personnel changes over the last few months following Jacques Kallis and Graeme Smith's retirements but the impact of those has been significant enough to speak about as if the whole team has changed.
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It cannot be easy being the side who are thought to have been defeated before even stepping onto the field so Zimbabwe's resolve will be on trial as much as the individuals involved. Their batsmen will have to fight fear to hold their own against the attack hailed as the world's best and their bowlers will want to pose a threat to a line-up that has shown they can soldier on for days undeterred.
The clear advantage the visitors have could make it easy for complacency to creep in, hence South Africa's spirit will come under the microscope. They've said all the right things about respecting Zimbabwe and taking the fixture seriously, but now it needs to be seen whether they actually do all that.
Zimbabwe announced a 15-man squad on Friday morning and have already whittled that down to 12 with Sikandar Raza, Cuthbert Musoko and Malcolm Waller confirmed as sitting out. That means Mark Vermeulen is likely to play his first Test in a decade and will go into it as Zimbabwe's most in-form batsman. At the top, Vusi Sibanda has recovered from chicken pox and should partner Hamilton Masakadza. There could be a debut for Donald Tiripano to form a three-man pace attack with Tendai Chatara and Tinashe Panyangara and offspinner John Nyumbu, although one of them may sit out for Regis Chakabva if Zimbabwe opt for an extra batsman.
Zimbabwe: (likely) 1 Vusi Sibanda, 2 Hamilton Masakadza, 3 Mark Vermeulen, 4 Brendan Taylor (capt), 5 Sean Williams, 6 Elton Chigumbura, 7 Richmond Mutumbami (wk), 8 John Nyumbu, 9 Tinashe Panyangara, 10 Donald Tiripano, 11 Tendai Chatara
A Test against Zimbabwe has been described as the ideal opportunity for South Africa to blood some new players and they may be contemplating making some changes. Amla mentioned the two areas under consideration are the opening berth and the role of the spinner which may see Alviro Petersen make way for Stiaan van Zyl, who is actually a No.3, and Imran Tahir sit out for young offspinner Dane Piedt. South Africa are unlikely to alter their pace pack although they have Kyle Abbott and Wayne Parnell in the reserves.
South Africa: (likely) 1 Alviro Petersen/Stiaan van Zyl, 2 Dean Elgar, 3 Faf du Plessis, 4 Hashim Amla (capt), 5 AB de Villiers, 6 Quinton de Kock (wk), 7 JP Duminy, 8 Vernon Philander, 9 Dale Steyn, 10 Morne Morkel, 11 Imran Tahir/Dane Piedt
Pitch and conditionsPreparation for this match has gone on for more than a month but it was not until the day before the match that a decision was taken on which surface to use. Pitch No.2, which is browner in colour and drier than the other strip in contention, No.4, has been selected for this match. Although it appears to have less in it for the quicks, there will still be something on offer on the first morning but it should be good for batting through the middle of the match and may break up slightly later on. Harare's springtime has come early with day time weather in the mid-20 degrees, warm sunshine and a cooling breeze providing pleasant playing weather.
Stats and trivia
- Zimbabwe and South Africa have played seven Tests against each other, of which South Africa have won all but one - a draw in Bulawayo in 2001
- Only two matches between these two teams have gone to five days and one of them included a rained out day
- Brendan Taylor, Elton Chigumbura and Hamilton Masakadza are the only current Zimbabwean players to have played a Test against South Africa while AB de Villiers is the only South African to have done the same against Zimbabwe
"South Africa will be expected to put in a massive performance. We need to enjoy the moment. We've prepared nicely. Hopefully we can take it day by day, session by session and not worry too much about the end result."
Zimbabwe captain Brendan Taylor
"I have always felt I want to be making decisions with the long-term in mind. Thus the Zimbabwe Test forms part of what we considered to be a three-match series with two in Sri Lanka so that's how we are looking are it."
South Africa captain Hashim Amla
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent