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October 5, 2012
Come political, economic or social crisis, cricket in Zimbabwe goes on. The domestic season, Zimbabwe's fourth with a franchise system, begins on Saturday and will run until the first weekend in March 2013.
Limited-overs matches kick off the summer with first-class competition only starting at the end of October. The pattern of their season has little impact on international competition, because they play so rarely, but is designed to minimise cost as Zimbabwe's board battles with debt.
Zimbabwe's next international assignment is in March when they tour the Caribbean, although they are also in the process of rescheduling a visit from Bangladesh. That means international players will feature heavily, as this is the closest thing they have to competition and the domestic circuit will be used to experiment and improve.
This is Zimbabwe's strongest franchise, based on last season's results. The Tuskers won the first-class competition and ended third in both the fifty-over and twenty-over competitions.
Their coach, Dave Houghton has left to work in another area but national bowling coach, Heath Streak will take over. A good mix of experience, such as captain Gavin Ewing and seamer Chris Mpofu, and youth, like allrounder Keegan Meth and quick Njabulo Ncube, make up their squad.
Notably, the Tuskers can field no overseas players because of financial constraints. English players Adam Wheater and Paul Horton will not return to the franchise as a result of this.
Sean Ervine, who plays for Hampshire and previously turned his back on Zimbabwe before the 2011 World Cup, has returned to the fold. Sean Williams, who opted out of the World T20 because of a dispute with the board, is also back and veteran bowler Mluleki Nkala has made himself available for selection as well.
Fifty-over champions and runners-up in the first-class tournament saw the Eagles enjoy a successful season last year. They are a stable unit, run by former international and coach Kevin Curran, and have a few national players in their ranks, some of whom will have to use their time in the franchise system to regain form after Zimbabwe's poor showing against New Zealand and at the World T20.
Stuart Matsikenyeri captains the side which also includes Elton Chigumbura, Kyle Jarvis and Ray Price. Promising faces to watch out for are Forster Mutizwa, Cephas Zuwao and Sikandar Raza. Chamu Chibhabha has also joined the Eagles.
It will be a tough ask for the Rhinos - mid-tablers for most of last season - because they have lost their two best batsmen: Gary Ballance and Riki Wessels. Ballance, who is Zimbabwean born but has committed to England, has been included in England's performance squad to tour India while money could be keeping Wessels away.
What the Rhinos do have is a wealth of national talent. They will be coached by Grant Flower and have national captain Brendan Taylor in their ranks. Also in the squad is Vusi Sibanda, Malcolm Waller and Graeme Cremer. One international, Essex's Jaik Mickelburgh, will turn out for them.
Mark Vermeulen is part of the squad on a pay-as-you-play basis. If he plays, he would have represented five Zimbabwean domestic teams.
Victory in last season's twenty-over competition buoyed this franchise amid a poor return in other formats. They finished last in the fifty-over tournament and second-last in the first-class game.
Change may come in the form of the coach and chief executive, Gary and Jon Brent. Both are former internationals and have embarked on a schools programme to broaden cricket awareness in the Mutare region. The squad has held coaching clinics at local schools and more than 70 teachers were trained in basic cricket skills in the winter in the hope that they will impart the knowledge to pupils. Jon hopes this will allow 800 children access to the game and create a talent pool for Mountaineers to dip into.
It was from this franchise that national bowler Brian Vitori emerged but they have had little else to show for their cricketing efforts. They finished at the bottom of both the first-class and twenty-over tables last season and were second from bottom in the fifty-over competition.
Houghton has moved from the Tuskers to the Rocks in a bid to help develop the Masvingo-based side. Houghton has brought with him two players - Peter Burgoyne and Ben Slater - from Derbyshire, where he coaches in the English summer.
Their bowling has been strengthened with the inclusion of three former internationals - Trevor Garwe, Tawanda Mupariwa and Tinashe Panyangara - but they have lost batsman Chamu Chibhabha.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondentFeeds: Firdose Moonda
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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Plays of the Day from the second ODI between England and India, in Cardiff
Plays of the day from the third ODI between England and India at Trent Bridge
Plays of the day from the tri-series match between Zimbabwe and South Africa
Would he have fared better than the incumbent middle-order batsmen, Root and Ballance?