Zimbabwe's domestic set-up will return to a five-team structure with the introduction of a new outfit called Rising Stars. In its first year, the squad will be made up of players who travelled to the UK as part of an academy under the watch of Tatenda Taibu, the convener of selectors, this winter. The squad includes four Zimbabwe internationals - Ryan Burl, Carl Mumba, Tarisai Musakanda and Richard Ngarava.
The Harare-based Rising Stars will play some of their matches at Takashinga Cricket Club in the high-density area of Highfield, and others at Old Hararians.
The five-team structure is aimed at creating a more competitive domestic scene, as was the case between 2009 and 2014, when Zimbabwe had a franchised local league. In 2014, one of those teams, Southern Rocks, which was based in Masvingo, 300 kilometres south of the capital, was dissolved because they had become logistically difficult to run.
The domestic structure then returned to a provincial one with four teams, though the teams kept their franchise names. Eagles (Harare), Matabeleland Tuskers (Bulawayo), Mid-West Rhinos (Kwe-Kwe) and Mountaineers (Mashonaland) will continue to play in this season's competitions, with the Mountaineers also playing some matches at Takashinga.
According to a fixture list seen by ESPNcricinfo, Zimbabwe's domestic season is set to start on the October 4, with six rounds of first-class matches that will overlap with West Indies' tour of Zimbabwe that includes two Tests. There will be an interspersing of first-class and List A matches throughout December and January. The focus then shifts solely to 50-over cricket with the National League (a club competition) and more List A matches in February-March as Zimbabwe's national team gears up for the 2019 World Cup qualifiers. The T20 tournament will be held in April.
All this serves as another indication that cricket in Zimbabwe is slowly starting to find a more productive path after years of administrative fumbling and financial mismanagement.
A complete overhaul of the structures has seen many former players, including Taibu, return to the fold. The academy side that will form the new Rising Stars team was largely his brainchild. "Last year, I was thinking about player pathways and how there seems to be a drop-off after Under-19 cricket," Taibu told ESPNcricinfo. "The academy proposal was my way of solving this, and I was grateful that my employers shared my vision to help us get where we are now."
Funding for the academy came from ZC and private sponsors, which allowed Taibu, who has lived in the UK for several years, to collaborate with an English sports agency and secure club contracts for players picked as among Zimbabwe's most promising. The academy also had a programme of its own, set up a training base at Lancashire's county ground in Aigburth, and played 48 matches across all formats against local teams, including the Surrey second XI and the MCC. They won 29 of those games and lost only eight, with three draws and eight washouts.
Along the way, Taibu identified many potential internationals, including Tinashe Kamunhukamwe, who scored more than 1000 runs including seven fifties and a hundred across the tour, legspinner Brandon Mavuta, who topped the bowling charts with 54 scalps, and Blessing Muzarabani, a two-metre-tall pacer whose speeds neared 140kph and who Taibu believes has "all the raw ingredients to become a destructive opening bowler at the highest level".
The Academy is part of a five-year plan. Taibu's plans include overseeing more trips, giving continued exposure to newly capped national players to the rigours of the international game, and nurturing new talent to deepen Zimbabwe's player pool. "I see the academy as performing a dual role: to identify and develop the next generation of players, but also a high-performance centre and finishing school for young players in or around the national side," Taibu said.
"In the case of Burl, Mumba, Musakanda and Ngarava, it was about them learning the trade of being a professional cricketer, what it takes to succeed at the highest level and then putting that into practice. I'm confident they developed during their time with the academy, time will tell."