Zimbabwe have announced an extensive 32-man training squad ahead of engagements against Australian and South African A teams that will kick off a busy 2011-12 season. Sean Williams, the left-handed batsman and part-time spinner who was part of Zimbabwe's World Cup squad, is the only really notable absentee from the squad list, but it is the inclusion of Pakistan-born batsman Sikandar Raza that will raise interest on the local cricket scene.
Raza, 25, emigrated from Pakistan in 2002 as a 15-year-old and played his first games for Northerns at the tail end of the 2006-'07 season. He then moved to Scotland to study at Langside College, turning up briefly as Colne's professional in the Lancashire League and also getting a game for Weirs in the Scotland Cup. He returned to Zimbabwe with a Bachelor's degree in software engineering and quickly moved from the Southern Rocks B side to their first XI.
He made his mark in limited-overs cricket first, and was Southern Rocks' leading run-scorer in the 2010-'11 Stanbic Bank 20 series. His development has also come on in first-class cricket, and he managed 625 runs at 41.66 in last season's Logan Cup. According to Alistair Campbell, Zimbabwe's chairman of selectors, Raza would be considered for national duty once his citizenship papers came through, and that is now the case.
Raza will be training alongside the core of Zimbabwe's batting talent, with almost all the regular national players included in the squad and the likes of Tino Mawoyo, Vusi Sibanda, Forster Mutizwa and Terry Duffin also pushing for a place in the top six - particularly with Williams, who has spent the off-season playing hockey, out of contention for the moment. Hamilton Masakadza's formidable Logan Cup form has been impossible to ignore, and he has been re-called after being left out of Zimbabwe's World Cup plans, while Charles Coventry also remains in the set-up, though the coaching staff will be impatient for him to turn undoubted potential into solid results.
Equally as eye-catching as Raza's call-up are the inclusions of several untested young seamers in the training group. National coach Alan Butcher has made clear his desire to unearth more fast-bowling talent ahead of the team's return to Tests later this year. Joining the national team regulars are relative unknowns such as Mike Chinouya, Tochukwu Enwerem, Brian Vitori, Lovemore Manatsa, Maxwell Chifamba and Njabulo Ncube.
Ncube and Chinouya have reasonable first-class experience, having played 33 and 29 games respectively, but Manatsa and Chifamba are newcomers and Enwerem, a left-arm seamer, presumably caught the eye while playing for Zimbabwe Under-19s earlier this year. Vitori, another left-armer, put in some quality performances in both limited-overs and first-class cricket towards the end of last season, but it's highly unlikely that any of these greenhorns will feature in Zimbabwe's Test plans. Their presence, nipping at the heels of the seniors, will at least give the regular seamers some competition and increase Zimbabwe's options.
Indeed, with Tendai Chatara and Keegan Meth, the two leading wicket-takers in the last Logan Cup, also in the group and Kyle Jarvis's rehabilitation from stress fractures complete - via short stints with Burwell in the East Anglian Premier League and Essex's Second XI - there could be a fierce struggle to fill two or three specialist seamers' positions. Chris Mpofu, Shingirai Masakadza and Ed Rainsford will have plenty to prove if they are to keep their spots as the first-choice seamers.
The selectors will also have the pleasant problem of deciding which spinner, or spinners, to play in the four-day games against Australia A. Prosper Utseya, Graeme Cremer and Ray Price pick themselves in limited-overs games - Zimbabwe's recent one-day successes have been based upon an attack composed almost entirely of spinners - but in the longer format mere asphyxiation will not bring wickets.
Natsai Mushangwe, a 20-year-old legspinner, has also been included in the squad after a promising first-class season with Mountaineers and appears to have leapfrogged domestic team-mate Timycen Maruma in the spin-bowling ranks. Maruma, who bowls a mixture of googlies and seam-up quicker deliveries, has barely put a foot wrong in domestic cricket since his debut in 2005-06 and had a first-class bowling average of just 17.89 last season, but will have to continue his wait for an extended run in the national side.
Though the team that will play against Australia and South Africa A will officially be a Zimbabwe XI, in effect it will be the full national side taking part in the games as part of their preparations for the Test return against Bangladesh in early August. Seven limited-overs games will be played between the three teams between June 29 and July 8, followed by two four-day matches against Australia A between July 15 and July 24.
Training squad Sikander Raza, Regis Chakabva, Tendai Chatara, Chamu Chibhabha, Maxwell Chifamba, Elton Chigumbura, Mike Chinouya, Charles Coventry, Graeme Cremer, Terrence Duffin, Tochukwu Enwerem, Craig Ervine, Kyle Jarvis, Greg Lamb, Lovemore Manatsa, Hamilton Masakadza, Shingirai Masakadza, Tino Mawoyo, Keegan Meth, Chris Mpofu, Natsai Mushangwe, Forster Mutizwa, Njabulo Ncube, Ian Nicolson, Tinashe Panyangara, Ray Price, Ed Rainsford, Vusi Sibanda, Tatenda Taibu, Brendon Taylor, Prosper Utseya, Brian Vitori