Zimbabwe's opening conundrum
Sean Ervine's departure from Zimbabwe's World Cup squad will have come as a massive blow to the team's planning and morale ahead of the tournament. His presence would have helped to shore up a brittle middle order, as well as providing an extra option with the ball, and without Ervine in their line-up Zimbabwe may well have to consider a re-shuffling of the batting order.
With the elder Ervine batting somewhere between No. 4 and 6, Charles Coventry had seemed the candidate most likely to be shunted up the order as a pinch-hitting opener, with Hamilton Masakadza and Chamu Chibhabha - Brendan Taylor's partners at the top of the innings in recent times - both left out of the squad.
"I am both excited and a little bit surprised as well, but I think this is my best chance to do well after the selectors showed faith in me by recalling me into the national team," Coventry told the Zimbabwe Independent before Ervine's announcement.
"Opening the innings with Taylor will be a big challenge but it's one I have set myself for since the rumour started making the rounds. Facing the new ball is a tough challenge. I have done it before at provincial level but internationally it's a different thing altogether, especially facing teams like Australia and Pakistan."
Ervine's departure prompted Zimbabwe Cricket to approach the ICC Event Technical Committee to seek approval for batsman Tino Mawoyo as a replacement. An opening batsman by trade, Mawoyo had been part of Zimbabwe's non-travelling reserves. Both he and Regis Chakabva could be prevailed upon to partner Taylor, while Sean Williams may well slot into the middle order as he provides another left-handed option and is proficient in playing spin.
Whatever happens, Zimbabwe will go into the competition with an experimental opening pair that will be their fourth combination in the last 12 months. Masakadza and Vusi Sibanda were asked to do the job during the series against West Indies in March last year, with Masakadza and Taylor opening during the home tri-series that followed, with some success. With Masakadza registering just eight runs in three innings against Ireland in September, Chibhabha was pushed up the order in the second ODI against South Africa in October after a pair of confident half-centuries against them in the Twenty20s.
He struggled to adapt his game to the 50-over format, however, and after a 53-run opening stand in the nine-run win over Bangladesh in the first match of their series in December he failed to build anything substantial in the matches which followed. When Masakadza was brought back into the line-up for the last game of the series he scratched around for 20 balls before being trapped in front of his stumps by Mashrafe Mortaza.
Without a clear candidate to partner Taylor, and seeking to minimize the disruption caused by Ervine's last minute change of heart, Zimbabwe may well decide to stick to what was rumoured to be the original plan and open with Coventry. He has had a stop-start international career, however, and has yet to show more than brief flashes of the talent that brought him an unbeaten 194 against Bangladesh - made from No. 3.
"To be honest Charles Coventry has been a hugely frustrating guy to deal with," chairman of selectors Alistair Campbell was moved to say recently. "We have put in so much effort in developing him but he hasn't been performing. But we hope that he can be the X-factor to deliver the big innings. We will try him at the top and we will also see how Chakabva responds to being promoted to the top as well."
Coventry doesn't deny that he is yet to do his talent justice, and insists he has been working hard on the technical frailties in his batting in preparation for the World Cup. "I have gone out a few times when everyone including me felt I could have kept my wicket and batted through," he added. "This is what they [the selectors] want me to do but I think a few times I have gone for big shots and got myself dismissed unnecessarily. I have to work on that and I think I will give a better show at the World Cup.
"We have to take the game to our opponents, play attacking cricket and not let them bully us. We are capable of beating anyone; we have shown that before by beating Australia at the Twenty20 World Cup. It's going to be tough but if we apply ourselves fully we can go through to the next round."
Coventry's bullish statements were echoed by national captain Elton Chigumbura, who hinted that Zimbabwe - needing to win at least three group games in order to go through to the Quarter Finals - would target New Zealand.
"We will fancy our chances against New Zealand who struggled the last time they were in the subcontinent," said Chigumbura. "They lost all their matches against Bangladesh and they clearly struggled against spin. We have a very good spin attack, so we will capitalise on their frailties and hopefully we will get a positive result."
Zimbabwe will also be hoping for more consistent performances from their captain, who suffered a startling loss of form with both bat and ball last season. "I have had a loss of form, but I know I am just an innings away from getting back to my best," he added. "I have been working hard on that and I have also been working on my bowling with Heath Streak."
Liam Brickhill is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo