Friday 16 October
Start time 9.30am local (0730 GMT)
Zimbabwe's packed schedule has already moved swiftly through two limited-overs series since the end of September, and now the national side heads down to Bulawayo for their third series in as many weeks, this time against Afghanistan. The hosts will have to hit the ground running, as Afghanistan have already been in the country for over a week preparing for these games, and have enlisted former Pakistan batsman Inzamam-ul-Haq as their head coach. The last time these teams met, the one-day series was shared 2-2, and the upcoming games are also likely to be closely fought.
That series, in 2014, is also surprisingly the only time that Afghanistan and Zimbabwe have played each other in international cricket. Zimbabwe's batsmen scored heavily in the opening two games of that tour, but tailender Dawlat Zadran inspired victory in the third, hitting four sixes in a seven-ball innings to win the match in the final over, and Zimbabwe crumbled in the fourth.
The contrasting approaches and styles of play apparent in that series, and generally in the two sides, will make for interesting watching over the next two weeks. Afghanistan have a quicker, if more erratic, bowling attack than the hosts, and they will certainly try to hit more sixes. Zimbabwe's style is more conservative, and with home advantage and greater experience they should be able to dominate a lengthy five-match series, and will arrive in Bulawayo buoyed by their success against Ireland.
Afghanistan's warm-up games were played at the Bulawayo Athletic Club, rather than Queens Sports Club, where the internationals will be held. Nevertheless, conditions there will be similar to those at Queens, and Afghanistan laid down a marker by winning their first two matches against a Chairman's XI of reasonable strength before Regis Chakabva's 92 in the third match set up a 34-run win for the Zimbabweans. Afghanistan will be pleased by their progress, as well as by the chance for a significant amount of top-level competition: they've not played an ODI since the World Cup in March.
(Last five matches, most recent first)
In the spotlight
Mohammad Shahzad wasn't in Afghanistan's squad for the World Cup, missing out due to concerns over his fitness, but he came back into the side for the World Twenty20 Qualifiers in July and bulldozed his way through the early stages of that competition with typical derring-do. He has played with the same style in Afghanistan's warm-up matches in Bulawayo, cracking 78 and 72 in the first two games, and if Zimbabwe's bowlers make the mistake of feeding his mighty swings into the leg side Shahzad could help to power Afghanistan to a big total.
Craig Ervine's languid batting style suggests a batsman who has always got time to move fluently through his strokes. He never seems to be in a rush, nor over-hit the ball, even when he is hitting sixes. That style will be in total contrast to many of the opposition's top order, and this year it has brought Ervine 494 runs at 54.88, including two hundreds. He played a leading role in both of Zimbabwe's wins over Ireland, and if his gammy hamstring holds together he will be the anchor around which Zimbabwe can build match-winning totals.
Zimbabwe will have a good idea what their best combination looks like, having played so much cricket recently, but these games will be their first in Bulawayo this year and the change in conditions may mean a little tinkering with the bowling combinations.
Zimbabwe: 1 Chamu Chibhabha, 2 Richmond Mutumbami (wk), 3 Craig Ervine, 4 Sean Williams, 5 Elton Chigumbura (capt), 6 Sikandar Raza, 7 Tino Mutombodzi, 8 Wellington Masakadza, 9 Luke Jongwe, 10 Tinashe Panyangara, 11 Taurai Muzarabani.
Afghanistan have tested a number of different batting and bowling combinations in their warm-up games, as well as two different captains, and they will likely settle on an XI heavy on pace and power hitters.
Afghanistan: 1 Noor Ali Zadran, 2 Nawroz Mangal, 3 Mohammad Shahzad (wk), 4 Asghar Stanikzai (capt), 5 Mohammad Nabi, 6 Samiullah Shenwari, 7 Najibullah Zadran, 8 Mirwais Ashraf, 9 Dawlat Zadran, 10 Aftab Alam, 11 Shapoor Zadran.
Pitch and conditions
Bulawayo is in a drier part of the country than Harare, and the pitch at Queens Sports Club has a reputation for being flat and hard. That usually leads to pace onto the bat and plenty of runs, though the pitch can also deaden and play slower and lower when it's stripped of too much grass. There are thunderstorms predicted in the city on Friday, so there's a chance of rain before the weather clears again over the weekend.
Stats and trivia
- Hamilton Masakadza, who is not currently part of Zimbabwe's squad, is the only batsman to have scored 1,000 or more runs in ODIs at Queens Sports Club. He has scored 1,009 runs at 34.79 in 30 innings at the ground.
- October is usually the hottest, driest month in Zimbabwe and that is certainly true of Bulawayo. This, of course, affects the conditions, often resulting in hard, dry pitches. In six ODIs played in October at Queens since 1997, the average first innings score is 273.
- This ground was the scene of Zimbabwe's highest run chase in ODIs when, in 2011, they chased down New Zealand's 328 to win by one wicket in the last over with Malcolm Waller scoring 99 not out.
- No Afghanistan batsman has hit an ODI hundred this year.
"I'm extremely hopeful that the lads will continue with the great form and desire that they've shown in the last few games. The chances of doing well become better if everyone is on the same page."
Zimbabwe coach Dav Whatmore hopes form and unity will translate into continued success for Zimbabwe.
"Inzamam is a cricket legend and everyone is excited that he is with us for this tour."
Afghanistan team manager Shir-Agha Hamkar punts the positive influence of Afghanistan's new head coach.
Liam Brickhill is a freelance journalist based in Cape Town