Zimbabwe's last big job

Members of Zimbabwe's ODI team celebrate their series win over Sri Lanka AFP

One last big job.

That's how many of Zimbabwe's squad will see the upcoming World Cup Qualifier. "A few us will be playing our last World Cup and I think the least we can do for each other is try and give everything we have in the tank for every game we play," Sikandar Raza said ahead of Zimbabwe's opener against Nepal. "If it happens, at least we can leave Zimbabwe Cricket with our heads held high. My first goal is to leave this beautiful game in better shape that I found it in."

Raza, 31, is one of nine players in Zimbabwe's squad aged 30 or above. For Hamilton Masakadza, 34, the qualifier is the first act in what will almost certainly be his final lap in international cricket. Certainly, the World Cup in England would likely be the last chapter for a player who has stood as a colossus in Zimbabwe's top order for 17 years - half of his entire life. Captain Graeme Cremer, 31, is well aware of the significance of the coming weeks to Zimbabwean cricketing history.

"There's a lot riding on these qualifiers," Cremer told the ICC website. "Such a huge tournament, and a historic one. The first one being held here in Zimbabwe will make it more special. It's always going to be tough to qualify but the team is ready and I can see the excitement being back in Zimbabwe. It'll be special for everyone and everyone will be looking to get to the final.

"We really want to have a decent crack at these qualifiers. We know what's at stake so we're raring to go. There's a special buzz in the change room playing at home, really looking forward to it," Cremer said. "There is definitely pressure especially because we're playing at home. A lot of strong Zimbabwean teams in the past have had to qualify and they have qualified. That's extra pressure on us and we'll embrace that."

This will be Zimbabwe's fourth World Cup qualifier - they have won three previous campaigns in what was then called the ICC Trophy, securing their places at the 1983, 1987 and 1992 World Cups. Their match against Afghanistan on Tuesday will set an early marker for their progress: a win in that game could be vital to them pulling the whole heist off.

"If we qualify, that will change a lot of things for the better, for us as individuals, for our families. The country is going through a positive change as well, that will give a lot of people, if not everyone, something to smile about" Sikandar Raza

Given that they will have to face the No.1 ranked ODI bowler in the world in that match, and given the inconsistencies that have plagued Zimbabwe, one real danger will be psyching themselves out on the big stage.

A couple of years ago, Tinashe Panyangara received a fine and a suspension for sharing a video of Mitchell Johnson's bouncers with his team-mates via Whatsapp before Australia toured Zimbabwe. Panyangara's jocular presence is no longer a feature of Zimbabwe's set-up, and these days it could be googlies, rather than bouncers, that might be circulating on Zimbabwean cricketers' cellphones ahead of the qualifiers. Specifically, Rashid Khan's googlies. Type his name into YouTube, and you will be presented with hundreds of examples why he is among the best limited-overs bowlers in the world, and why Zimbabwe have every reason to be afraid. Come Tuesday, he is likely to be the difference between the two teams.

Zimbabwe's own batsmen make cameo appearances in several of those online highlights. Rashid helped himself to 16 for 127 against them in the ODIs that took place in February, to go with the 5 for 42 he took across the two preceding T20Is, at under a-run-a-ball.

Zimbabwe's most pressing concern will be with their middle order, who have struggled in recent times and against whom Rashid will be weaving his magic. While Raza, Brendan Taylor and Craig Ervine all came away from the 4-1 defeat to Afghanistan in Sharjah with their personal reputations intact, only once in the series did more than one batsman come good in the same match. Invariably, it was spin that did the damage. Conditions at Queens Sports Club will be a far cry from those in the desert, but equally helpful to slow bowling in their own way and Zimbabwe's trial by spin is not yet over.

Enter Sean Williams. The dynamic left hander was absent from Zimbabwe's tri-series adventure against Sri Lanka and Bangladesh for reasons as yet unclear. He then ended up breaking his spinning finger in practice, missing the Afghanistan series, but was recalled by Zimbabwe at the last moment before this tournament. The bolt was removed from his finger on Friday, and coach Heath Streak has said he is "touch and go" to take part in the match against Afghanistan on Tuesday. Zimbabwe need him desperately.

Williams is probably the best player of spin in the country, and he also has a history of overcoming health concerns in order to compete. In 2016 he scored his maiden Test hundred against New Zealand while seriously ill with a high fever.

"But it's not just the Afghans, I think to me every match is a great match," Raza told the ICC website. Also part of Group B, alongside the hosts, are Nepal, Hong Kong and Scotland, each bringing their own unique challenges, and each quite capable of overcoming Zimbabwe on their day. "If we qualify, that will change a lot of things for the better, for us as individuals, for our families. The country is going through a positive change as well, that will give a lot of people, if not everyone, something to smile about, something to believe, something to hope for."

This is Zimbabwe's litmus test; their line in the sand. Adversity has forged them into a band of brothers, and fate has now offered them a shot at redemption, glory even, in the third act of their careers. The very future of Zimbabwean cricket hinges on the next month. Several players, long-tired of the financial crisis that continuously affects their game, have confirmed that if Zimbabwe fail to secure a spot at next year's World Cup, they may look at pursuing their careers outside the country.

This is their "last hurrah", as Raza put it. One last big job. And if they don't make it? "What will be, will be, brother."