It's been 13 months since Pakistan last played an ODI, and while that's the sort of drought you might associate with their opponents, Zimbabwe, Chamu Chibhabha's men did complete a three-match series against Bangladesh before cricket was shut down in March. But with this series serving as the beginning of the World Super League for both sides, it's the start of a new cycle that should, if things go according to plan, lead to India 2023. Merely getting there automatically would represent a colossal achievement for Zimbabwe after the dramatic manner they missed out on the last World Cup, while Pakistan need to guarantee there are no hiccups now that, for the first time, qualification for the traditionally established major teams is no longer guaranteed.
It might be absurd to say this, but Pakistan's "recent" ODI form is about as good as it gets, with six wins on the spin, stretching back to the halfway point of the 2019 World Cup. That might not be terribly relevant given the time between their last ODI and this one, but most of the personnel are the same, and against a Zimbabwe side short of much to cheer since that unsuccessful World Cup qualification campaign, it makes the home side firm favourites.
Pakistan's recent memories of playing Zimbabwe are positive ones, with openers Fakhar Zaman and Imam-ul-Haq enjoying great runs of form in the reverse leg two years ago. Both have since seen the runs dry up to some extent, and will be eyeing these opponents to try and get back on track. The pace bowling, too, looks set to be a major weapon for the hosts, with both Shaheen Afridi and Haris Rauf in the form of their careers, the recently concluded National T20 Cup a good indicator about the challenges Zimbabwe should expect to confront.
While this might appear to be rock bottom for Zimbabwe, it really is worth stressing things are much improved in the last year or so. The devastating exodus feared after the World Cup qualifiers hasn't quite happened, with the core of that side still very much present. Sikandar Raza was rumoured to be walking away from the game, but remains very much with the side, while Blessing Muzarabani, who had walked away for a Kolpak deal, is back with his national team.
Zimbabwe were suspended by the ICC for alleged political interference in July 2019, but ended up being reinstated four months later. They now play an international series well before far more prominent Full Members have managed to organise one post shutdown, and there genuinely is an exciting group of young talent. The future looks a little brighter, but as Elton Chigumbura and Chibhabha insisted, they need results in the present. Friday might represent a good opportunity to catch their rusty opponents out.
Pakistan WWWWW (last five completed matches, most recent first)
In the spotlight
Usman Qadir finds a way to dodge a Pakistan cap through one misfortune or another, but that run may come to an end on Friday. With Shadab Khan ruled out of the first ODI, Qadir is the only available legspinner in the squad, and should the surface look accommodating, may well be in line for a call-up. Called up for a T20I tour of Australia a year ago only to warm the bench, and set to play the third T20I against Bangladesh in January only for the game to be washed out, Qadir has had to patiently wait his turn. He's built up game time on the Pakistan domestic circuit, and was thoroughly serviceable in the National T20 Cup earlier this month, taking 10 wickets at a strike rate of 18.6. He may have a long way to go to seriously challenge Shadab, but getting a game would be a start.
It is unlikely to imagine a referendum in the UK five years ago having an impact on this Zimbabwe side, but the UK's vote to leave the European Union is what ensures Blessing Muzarabani is here in Pakistan. With the Kolpak loophole closed, his time at Northamptonshire ended earlier this month, and it's a sign of how highly he's rated that he finds himself thrown straight into the national side. A lot may have happened since, but it's worth restating what a colossal loss he was deemed to be for Zimbabwe when he opted for the Kolpak route after the side's heartbreaking failure to qualify for the 2019 World Cup. He was instrumental in taking Zimbabwe to the brink, holding his nerve in final-over thrillers against Afghanistan and Scotland, and with two years of experience in the UK, should return a much-improved bowler.
Pakistan's line-up is hard to predict what with them not have played ODI cricket since October 2018, but Shadab's absence could open up a place for Qadir to make his debut. Khushdil Shah, likewise, could get his first ODI cap, while conditions may dictate whether Faheem Ashraf or Imad Wasim get the nod.
Pakistan (possible): 1 Fakhar Zaman, 2 Imam-ul-Haq, 3 Babar Azam (capt), 4 Haris Sohail, 5 Mohammad Rizwan (wk), 6 Iftikhar Ahmed, 7 Khushdil Shah 8 Imad Wasim/Faheem Ashraf, 9 Haris Rauf, 10 Usman Qadir/Musa Khan, 11 Shaheen Afridi
Zimbawe (possible): 1 Brian Chari/Tinashe Kamunhukamwe, 2 Chamu Chibhabha (capt), 3 Craig Ervine, 4 Brendan Taylor (wk), 5 Sean Williams/Wesley Madhevere, 6 Elton Chigumbura, 7 Sikandar Raza, 8 Wellington Masakadza, 9 Carl Mumba, 10 Donald Tiripano, 11 Blessing Muzarabani
Pitch and conditions
The pitch has a tinge of grass, so seamers could find themselves in the game. Dry, sunny weather means there's no threat of interruption, while an early start means dew shouldn't be a factor either.
Stats and trivia
Brendan Taylor is one six away from 100 ODI career sixes; in the current Zimbabwe side, only Chigumbura (105) can better that
Babar Azam is 641 runs away from 4000 ODI runs. Should he get there in fewer than nine more innings, he will beat Hashim Amla to become the fastest man to the landmark
"I keep insisting we can't afford to take any side lightly, and Zimbabwe present a challenge we have to take seriously"
Babar Azam is taking nothing for granted this series
"We've been a team that doesn't really quite get over the line, and it's something that we've talked about. There's a lot more desperation to win. And that is the mentality at the moment. And considering it's super league games, each game that we play is going to be very crucial for us"
Zimbabwe captain Chamu Chibhabha wants a shift in mentality ahead of the series