Zimbabwe braced for rare home series
On Thursday, England take on India in Kanpur while Australia return to their favourite fortress in Brisbane to face New Zealand, and there's also the second day of South Africa's warm-up Test series against Bangladesh at Bloemfontein to enjoy. With that amount of cricket action around the world, the Harare Sports Club is unlikely to be the centre of much attention. Nevertheless, for the home side, Zimbabwe, the venue plays host to a significant occasion, as they take on Sri Lanka in their first home international in almost a year.
West Indies were the last team to visit the troubled country, back in December 2007, when they wrapped up a 3-1 victory in a five-match ODI series. Since then, the team has endured an itinerant existence against a backdrop of political unrest - in January they lost a low-key away series against their fellow outcasts, Pakistan, before taking part in a rain-ruined triangular tournament with Kenya and Ireland in Nairobi in October, and a Twenty20 tournament in Canada. A five-match series against Sri Lanka, World Cup finalists in 2007, is the most appetising contest they've had in months.
To judge by recent history, however, the visit could be another embarrassment for Zimbabwe. On their last visit in 2004, Sri Lanka's unchallenged dominance paved the way for the country's ongoing suspension from Test status. They lost both five-day games by margins in excess of an innings and 200 runs, then were overwhelmed 5-0 in the ODIs. To make matters worse, Zimbabwe's captain and lone star of that series, Tatenda Taibu, could be missing from this encounter. He is currently embroiled in a dispute with Zimbabwe Cricket over pay and conditions.
On the flip side, Zimbabwe could welcome back the services of their talented but temperamental allrounder, Sean Williams, who announced last month that he was pulling out of the series out of frustration at a lack of proper cricket. He missed the pre-series training camp but was back in action in the nets during Sri Lanka's warm-up match at Bulawayo last week. Given the paucity of their resources, the selectors are unlikely to leave him on the sidelines regardless of his attitude towards them.
That Bulawayo match - a four-day affair - finished as a draw to give Zimbabwe some hope that they'll be able to muster a challenge, although with Kumar Sangakkara rattling up a massive 174 and Chamara Kapugedera 150, there aren't many doubts about the form of Sri Lanka's batting line-up. That said, they were bowled out for 235 inside their allotted 50 overs in their final warm-up on Monday, prompting their coach, Trevor Bayliss, to accuse them of lacking application.
"We need to get back into gear and quickly," Bayliss told AFP. "I'm sure it will be very different when things get serious from Thursday." With Muttiah Muralitharan still lurking and as hungry as ever for wickets, not to mention their new spin sensation, Ajantha Mendis, it's hard to see how Zimbabwe will muster enough runs to mount a serious challenge in the course of the series.
Zimbabwe squad Prosper Utseya (capt), Chamunorwa Chibhabha, Elton Chigumbura, Keith Dabengwa, Timycen Maruma, Hamilton Masakadza, Shingirayi Masakadza, Stuart Matsikenyeri, Christopher Mpofu, Tawanda Mupariwa, Forster Mutizwa, Raymond Price, Edward Rainsford, Vusimuzi Sibanda, Tatenda Taibu
Sri Lanka squad Mahela Jayawardene (capt), Kumar Sangakkara, Mahela Udawatte, Chamara Kapugedera, Jehan Mubarak, Thilina Kandamby, Upul Tharanga, Farveez Maharoof, ThilanThushara, Nuwan Kulasekara, Ajantha Mendis, Dilhara Fernando, Muttiah Muralitharan, Angelo Mathews, Dammika Prasad.