Context is a vital ingredient in any Test match, but the circumstances of the Test series between Bangladesh and Zimbabwe present a set-up where the focus of both teams is on cricket's other formats.
Bangladesh's preoccupation with the World Cup has been compounded by an indifferent year in cricket's longest format. They began the year with a 1-0 loss to Sri Lanka, and in July lost both Tests against West Indies - the first by an innings and 219 runs after being bowled out for 43 in the horror show at North Sound, and the second by 166 runs after Jason Holder picked up an 11-wicket match haul in a capitulation at Sabina Park.
A change in format brought a change of fortunes and Bangladesh won both their ODI and T20I series against West Indies before reaching the final of the Asia Cup, and then thrashing Zimbabwe 3-0 in the ODIs leading up to this game. As they hunt for their first Test win of 2018, it's hard to imagine an easier target than Zimbabwe, for whom Test cricket has long been something of an afterthought. The visitors have played just eight Tests since their last tour to Bangladesh four years ago, and the Sylhet Test will be their first of the year.
While it's impossible to decipher form from such a frugal sample, the two teams do at least have a rich shared cricketing history to draw from, and they have engaged in some fascinating battles over the years - though usually in Zimbabwe, as the visitors have fallen well short more often than not in recent contests hosted in Bangladesh. The last time Zimbabwe won a Test in Bangladesh, Naimur Rahman was captain and the hosts were playing their seventh game ever in the format. That remains Zimbabwe's only Test win here.
The home spin attack ran riot in tailor-made conditions during the last Test series between these teams in 2014, with Shakib Al Hasan, Taijul Islam and Jubair Hossain sharing 46 wickets as Bangladesh stormed to a 3-0 win. While they won't have to content with Shakib this time, Zimbabwe face a daunting challenge heading into the first game, and after Bangladesh's authoritative victories in the ODIs the hosts will be confident in their pursuit of a first Test victory this year.
Bangladesh: LLLDL (Last five matches, most recent first)
In the spotlight
Mominul Haque must bat like a batsman who has a 40-plus Test average if he is to disregard his worst Test series in the West Indies, when he collected two ducks and managed just 16 runs across four innings, and two iffy Asia Cup outings. Mominul has the confidence of a hundred in his most recent first-class innings in the National Cricket League, and will be looking to re-discover the form that brought him 176 against Sri Lanka in his first Test of 2018.
While batting frailties have dogged Zimbabwe's last two tours, Sean Williams' personal form has bucked this trend. Buoyed by his century in the third ODI, Williams is also one of the better players of spin in Zimbabwe's line-up and he will have a vital counter-attacking role to play in the middle order against Bangladesh's slow bowlers.
Bangladesh have to make at least four changes as Tamim Iqbal, Shakib Al Hasan, Nurul Hasan and Kamrul Islam Rabbi are not in the squad. Current form will put Imrul Kayes and Mohammad Mithun in the XI in place of Tamim and Shakib while Mustafizur Rahman should replace Rabbi. The No. 7 slot therefore could be a toss-up between Nazmul Hossain Shanto and Ariful Haque.
Taijul Islam should remain first-choice left-arm spinner ahead of Nazmul Islam while pace bowler Abu Jayed is likely to be chosen ahead of Shafiul Islam and newcomer Khaled Ahmed.
Bangladesh (probable): 1 Imrul Kayes, 2 Liton Das, 3 Mominul Haque, 4 Mohammad Mithun, 5 Mahmudullah (capt), 6 Mushfiqur Rahim (wk), 7 Nazmul Hossain Shanto/Ariful Haque, 8 Mehidy Hasan Miraz, 9 Taijul Islam, 10 Mustafizur Rahman, 11 Abu Jayed
Predicting the make-up of a side that plays Tests so rarely is a difficult task, and no doubt Zimbabwe have some questions of their own over exactly what their best side looks like in this format. They have included Regis Chakabva in their squad, and may look to relieve Brendan Taylor of his wicketkeeping role, while Brian Chari and Hamilton Masakadza are the likely opening pair. Conditions will dictate whether they include an extra spinner or a third seamer in their attack.
Zimbabwe (probable): 1 Hamilton Masakadza (capt), 2 Brian Chari, 3 Craig Ervine, 4 Brendan Taylor, 5 Sean Williams, 6 Sikandar Raza, 7 Regis Chakabva (wk), 8 Brandon Mavuta, 9 Donald Tiripano/Wellington Masakadza, 10 Kyle Jarvis, 11 Chris Mpofu
Pitch and conditions
In first-class matches at this venue this year, sides have either been bowled out for 160 or 180-odd batting first, or they have racked up 400-plus totals. It is known to have something for pace bowlers too, but Bangladesh usually prefer slow, turning surfaces in home Tests. It is likely to be mostly clear with the odd shower in the forecast on the third and fourth days.
Stats and trivia
- Sylhet will become the sixth city, and will provide the eighth venue, to host a Test match in Bangladesh. The others are Dhaka (two stadiums), Chittagong (two stadiums), Bogra, Fatullah and Khulna
- Hamilton Masakadza averages close to 50 with the bat in Tests in Bangladesh, and his 158 in the second Test at Khulna in 2014 remains his highest score in this format
- Bangladesh have lost six of the 14 Tests they've played against Zimbabwe, but are increasingly dominant in recent years, and have won four of the last five Tests between the two
"Preparation wasn't ideal. Most of the game was washed out. But we did manage to get on the field for 50 overs on the last day. Just one practice session going into the Test match so the boys are trying to get the most out of it today."
Zimbabwe captain Hamilton Masakadza on his side's truncated preparation ahead of the first Test
"I don't think we will experiment in the first Test. The best XI is likely to be picked. First matches are always important, in every format. We always feel that starting well takes us a long way in contests."
Bangladesh captain Mahmudullah about whether they will tinker with their line-up in the first Test
Liam Brickhill is a freelance journalist based in Cape Town