The last time these two teams met, Zimbabwe gave Sri Lanka an almighty scare. Craig Ervine and Sikandar Raza struck hundreds, captain Graeme Cremer took nine wickets, and Sri Lanka were made to chase 388 for victory at Khettarama. Had a very tight stumping decision gone Zimbabwe's way in the back end of that chase, the visitors would have been headed towards an upset. Earlier on that tour, Zimbabwe had won the ODI series.
It's been only a little over two years since those series, but how much has changed. The optimism that Zimbabwe ended that tour with has not just dissipated in the time since, it has been replaced by gloom. Having been suspended from full-member rights for a large chunk of 2019, Zimbabwe Cricket has had to put a domestic tournament on hold, pending further funding from the ICC.
On the player front, Cremer is not even in the team, having put his career on hold to move to Dubai with his family, while Hamilton Masakadza has retired and swiftly become Zimbabwe's director of cricket. PJ Moor - one of the best players from that Khettarama game - has been overlooked for the squad as well. In fact, where that old Zimbabwe squad had a little experience about it, the one that has been named for this series features five players who are uncapped in Tests.
It's a strange series in which Sri Lanka actually appear to have the more stable outfit. Yes, it is Dimuth Karunaratne leading the Test team now, when it had been Dinesh Chandimal at these teams' last meeting. But at least Chandimal still finds a place in the XI. Having named their strongest squad, Sri Lanka have serious experience on their side, particularly in Angelo Mathews and Suranga Lakmal, who returns after having missed the entire Pakistan series.
The visitors go in as favourites, but they are far from unbeatable. There are huge questions over Dilruwan Perera's ability to lead the spin attack after he went wicketless in Pakistan. The top order has shown flashes of brilliance, but is in no way a consistent or cohesive unit. There are plenty of cricketers playing for their spot, which of course opens up opportunities for Zimbabwe.
Zimbabwe LWLDL (completed matches, most recent first)
Sri Lanka LDLWW
In the spotlight
The last time Zimbabwe won a Test, in late 2018, Sean Williams' first-innings 88 had led them to 282 in Sylhet - a total that proved decisive on that surface, where each of the three other innings fell short of 200. His left-arm spin has also been helpful, such as against West Indies in Bulawayo, the previous year. Now, as he prepares to captain his first Test, he has the likes of Brendan Taylor, Raza and Ervine to call upon for support, but if he can make his own individual mark on the series, it may help a side playing their first Test in over a year rally behind him, and spark a little of that hope they found in their last encounters with Sri Lanka.
In September 2015, Angelo Mathews' batting average was a touch above 52, and he was easily one of the best players in the world. At the start of 2020, his average is 43.87, the lowest it's been in at least six years. Injuries have plagued him, yes, but even those can't quite account for how he is now merely a good player, when once he was headed toward "great" status. Although it seems as if he's been around forever, Mathews is only 32 - the kind of age at which many batsmen come into their most prolific years. In the last few months, he has also dropped a lot of the weight he carried through the last few years and suddenly seems as fit as he's ever been. Can Mathews recapture the form of old? With a challenging year ahead, Sri Lanka are desperate for someone to lead the middle order as he once did.
Opener Kevin Kasuza, who has been in decent domestic form for Mountaineers, could be in line for a Test debut. He could be partnered by Rhinos opener Prince Masvaure. Seam bowler Victor Nyauchi is one of several bowlers who could debut, with Tendai Chatara out of the series with a bicep injury. Left-arm spinner Ainsley Ndlovu is uncapped in Tests as well, and could get a run, if Zimbabwe feel they need a specialist spinner in addition to Raza and Williams.
Zimbabwe(possible): 1 Kevin Kasuza, 2 Prince Masvaure, 3 Brendan Taylor, 4 Craig Ervine, 5 Sean Williams (capt.), 6 Sikandar Raza, 7 Regis Chakabva (wk), 8 Donald Tiripano, 9 Victor Nyauchi, 10 Kyle Jarvis, 11 Ainsley Ndlovu
Sri Lanka's top order should be fairly settled - Lahiru Thirimanne the likeliest to sit out. Lahiru Kumara and Lakmal will most likely share the new ball, while Dilruwan and Lasith Embuldeniya will probably be the frontline spin options.
Sri Lanka (possible): 1 Dimuth Karunaratne (capt.), 2 Oshada Fernando, 3 Kusal Mendis, 4 Angelo Mathews, 5 Dinesh Chandimal, 6 Dhananjaya de Silva, 7 Niroshan Dickwella (wk), 8 Dilruwan Perera, 9 Suranga Lakmal, 10 Lasith Embuldeniya, 11 Lahiru Kumara
Pitch and conditions
There's rain scheduled for the first half of Saturday, with showers predicted for Monday and Tuesday as well. The Harare Sports Club surface is generally good for batting in the first innings.
Stats and trivia
- Zimbabwe have lost five matches and drawn five at home against Sri Lanka. The most recent of those draws, though, was all the way back in 1999. Their last two matches at the Harare Sports Club against Sri Lanka have ended in 225-run and 257-run defeats.
- Ervine needs 59 more runs to complete 1000 in Tests. His highest score was the 160 at Khettarama in 2017.
- Mathews has averaged less than 30 with the bat in three of the last four calendar years.
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @afidelf