Zimbabwe are making some bold decisions in the hope of developing a side full of confident cricketers who will do well in the World Cup Qualifiers in March.
Even though they are ranked No. 10 on the ODI table, their senior leadership is looking at giving players a good run in the team and not dropping them after one or two bad performances. In the just concluded tri-series in Bangladesh, they lost three out of four matches but stuck to the same playing XI. Many teams would have dropped a young fast bowler after he delivered four no-balls and went wicketless for 31 runs in four overs on debut. It was easy to misunderstand Blessing Muzarabani's nervousness in front of a big crowd. But by his third game, he looked like he was starting to understand how to bowl in international cricket.
Craig Ervine made only 15 runs in four innings, but he wasn't dropped either. Any cricketer will tell you that such an assurance goes a long way in giving him confidence.
Taking these decisions can't be easy. Zimbabwe captain Graeme Cremer accepts his difficult position but says that such consistency has worked for them. "We try as hard as we can to give a particular team a long enough run," Cremer says. "It is very tough for someone to play couple of games and then not play for a while. We have tried to give everyone a fair run. It is tough sometimes when someone is struggling. We know everyone's ability, so it is never really an issue. Even if someone is out of form, it takes one innings or a good bowling performance. We are happy with selection in the last year."
This approach paid off in Sri Lanka last year, where Zimbabwe beat the home side 3-2 in the ODIs and pushed them all the way in the Test. They used only 14 players in the five-match ODI series. One of those who came into his own in Sri Lanka and in the tri-series in Bangladesh was allrounder Sikandar Raza, who has called the side a "band of brothers".
"We have given guys the freedom, without the fear of being dropped. We have given guys the long run. They have become more positive now. We have tried to tell them to play freely" Graeme Cremer
"I don't know if it makes it easier or harder, but I bring my own identity and a different flavour to the squad," Raza says. "Everyone expects, loves and enjoys it. We come from different cultures in the team. We have all races joining together in one team.
"Every time there's azaan [the call for prayers from the mosque], my team-mates will remind me: it is your call for prayers. Some call it the alarm clock because it is time for me to pray. It shows my team-mates respect my beliefs and religion.
"Nowadays there's a new law that you cannot have a sub fielder if it is not an external injury. No one stops me [from leaving the field]. I am allowed to get a replacement, which shows that ICC has a lot of respect for it. When it is time for prayers, I ask my captain the best time to get five minutes. I respect him and he respects my faith and religion."
Raza says Zimbabwe cricket is moving towards a more professional set-up.
"Since our chairman Doc [Tavengwa Mukuhlani] and Faisal [Hasnain] have joined hands and [Tatenda] Taibu and [Heath] Streaky have taken over, a lot of things have changed. A lot of professionalism has come into our attitude and preparation. How we think, behave, eat, live our lives and make our decisions. It is an exciting period in our careers. I just hope that we can turn it into our full potential and be there at the World Cup."
To be at the tournament in England next year, Zimbabwe have to finish in the top two in the World Cup Qualifiers, which will be played at home in two months. West Indies, Ireland and Afghanistan will be the other Full-Member nations fighting Zimbabwe for those spots, along with six Associate teams.
"I am not scared - never been for any challenge," Raza says. "Excited, yes. There's a lot of good cricket coming and there's something to achieve at the end of it, which is to go to England for the World Cup.
"I am nervous before every game. It is a sign that every game means something to me. You want to win games for your country. We are confident for us to qualify. It is the right frame of mind to be in."
Cremer acknowledges the pressure the hosts will be under and the difficulty of playing against much improved Associate sides.
"There's huge expectations [on us]," Cremer says. "It is going to be a tough tournament. All the Associates are not where they used to be, especially Afghanistan and Ireland [now Full Members]. There'll be the added pressure of playing in front of our home fans. But hopefully we can put that aside once we get on the field."
Cremer, who has been Zimbabwe's captain role since June 2016, says his partnership with head coach Heath Streak has made a big difference to his on-field leadership.
"I get along very well with Heath [Streak], who has been a past captain. He helps me to express what I need to to the team. It helps my own performance at the same time. I am really enjoying captaining the team.
"We have given guys the freedom without the fear of being dropped. We have given guys the long run. They have become more positive now. We have tried to tell them to play freely."
Raza gives credit to their batting coach, Lance Klusener, for letting them think for themselves, rather than imposing his methods on the Zimbabwe batsmen.
"He is constantly encouraging us to think about our own games. He has been hitting balls, throwing us balls and taking us through drills. He has given us a road map, mentally, to be successful. It is up to us now how hard we work," Raza says.
The way they are going, it will take some doing to beat Zimbabwe in the Qualifiers. Cremer says they have a team of experienced middle-order batsmen, skilful spinners and a pace attack now strengthened by the return of Kyle Jarvis and Brian Vitori.
"We model our team around our spinners. We might have Sean Williams back by then. He is a huge asset. We have some real experience in the batting, although we didn't show it in the tri-series.
"We have guys like Hamilton Masakadza and Brendon Taylor, and now Sikandar Raza coming into his own. We have a well-oiled, all-round team," he said.
Cremer, Raza and the rest of the Zimbabwe side fly to Dubai to play five ODIs against Afghanistan before they head home to prepare for the Qualifiers. They know what they are doing, and if they continue to have the trust of their administrators, selectors and coaches, we will likely see them in England next year.