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Feature

Ballance's Test comeback, spotlight on Lara and Houghton, and a test case for Test cricket

There's no WTC context to the Zimbabwe vs West Indies series, but there's still plenty to look forward to

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
03-Feb-2023
Gary Ballance played his first game for Zimbabwe in January, in a T20I against Ireland in Harare  •  AFP/Getty Images

Gary Ballance played his first game for Zimbabwe in January, in a T20I against Ireland in Harare  •  AFP/Getty Images

In a cricketing landscape where many of the same big names are playing in the same T20 leagues and the same top-tier Test nations have more or less the same big-picture narratives against each other, here's something different. Zimbabwe and West Indies will face off for only the sixth time in a Test series and the first time in more than five years. It's not a World Test Championship series, so there are no points on offer. It's simply good, old-fashioned cricket for cricket's sake.
Even though context is key in a crowded calendar, there are several reasons why this series matters. We shine the spotlight on them here.

Gary Ballance is back playing Test cricket

Gary Ballance, the Zimbabwe-born, England-capped top-order batter, has been out of the Test arena for longer than Zimbabwe have waited to play West Indies in this format. His last appearance was in July 2017 against South Africa and brought an end to the first phase of a Test career that had 1000 runs in its first 17 innings and yielded fewer than 500 in its next 25. Since then, Ballance has been one of the central characters in the Yorkshire racism scandal. He admitted to and apologised for using the word P*** when talking to Azeem Rafiq, and then took a lengthy break from the game to manage his mental health.
Ballance was released from his county contract, which was due to run until the end of the 2024 season, early and returned home to Zimbabwe at the end of last year. He signed a two-year deal with Zimbabwe Cricket and joined a long list of players who have headed back to the country from England, including Kyle Jarvis, Brendan Taylor (both since retired) and Blessing Muzarabani, in a bid to boost the national set-up. Ballance made his debut for Zimbabwe last month, and was capped in T20Is and ODIs, but it's the longest format where he is expected to make his biggest contribution.
With a first-class average of 47.31, four Test hundreds to his name, and years in the county circuit, Ballance will bring experience and gravitas to a line-up that is only rarely exposed to the rigours of Test cricket.

Dave Houghton's first Test series as coach

Another prodigal son in the Zimbabwean set-up is coach Dave Houghton (who is also related to Ballance), who came back into the fold before the T20 World Cup qualifiers last year. Houghton, who previously captained Zimbabwe at the 1992 World Cup and coached them in 2009, was tasked with turning around the fortunes of a team that had lost a series to southern African counterparts and associates Namibia and were at risk of missing a fourth successive ICC event.
He inspired a remarkable turnaround in which Zimbabwe not only went to the 2022 T20 World Cup but made it out of the first round into the Super 12s and stunned eventual finalists Pakistan. They also beat Bangladesh for the first time in an ODI series after nine years (that's six series). Every player interviewed - including Sikandar Raza, who was included in the ICC's ODI and T20I teams of 2022 but will not feature in this series because of T20 franchise commitments - has credited Houghton for changing the environment, giving them freedom to express themselves, and encouraging them to play attacking cricket.
Now, he has to work his magic in the format Zimbabwe have the least experience in. They have not played Test cricket for 18 months, since they hosted Bangladesh and lost heavily.

What sort of impact will Brian Lara have?

West Indies have problems of their own after their dismal performance at the T20 World Cup, where they did not advance out of the first round. On their subsequent tour to Australia, they were blanked in both the T20I and Test series.
A report by CWI warned that West Indies cricket could "cease to exist as an entity" if they continued to lose players to T20 leagues and failed to cultivate incentives for representing the islands, especially in Test cricket. The report detailed a new strategy where West Indies would use a select group of white-ball players in red-ball cricket in order to fast-track their development.
None of them are part of the touring party to Zimbabwe, though, but another familiar face is. Brian Lara will begin his role as West Indies' performance mentor on this trip, a job aimed at assisting with both the tactical and technical skills of the team. Much like Houghton, Lara has his work cut out. But he will be comfortable with what should be a fairly soft landing in Zimbabwe before moving south to neighbouring South Africa for a full tour.

Shannon Gabriel returns; Alzarri Joseph comes full circle

A West Indian bowling attack is usually worth keeping an eye on, especially this time, because it features two names that will be an important part of their rebuilding.
Shannon Gabriel returns to the squad after a 14-month absence - a consequence of being injured and then overlooked. He will join a pack that also includes Jason Holder, Kemar Roach and Alzarri Joseph, who was their leading wicket-taker in Australia.
Joseph is proving to be one of their most consistent players across all formats. He was their second-leading wicket-taker in ODIs last year and had his most successful year in T20s in 2022 - he took 46 wickets at an average of 19.54. Joseph is exactly the kind of player West Indies could lose to leagues unless they incentivise and manage him properly and this series could be the start of that process.

A test case for Test cricket outside the big boys

Thanks largely to Bazball, we know that Test cricket is alive and well, but we don't know if that's the case outside of a select few teams. The big three, along with New Zealand, Pakistan and to a lesser degree, South Africa, still put the longest format on a pedestal. But when it comes to Zimbabwe and West Indies, where hosting Test matches is costly and the rewards are slim, this format may still be running cold. This series will give us a gauge.
Zimbabwe Cricket has put an effort into marketing it and expects to see a healthy clutch of spectators, not least because there hasn't been any Test cricket in Bulawayo since the West Indies trip of 2017.
If you think that's overly optimistic, it's not. The Harare Sports Club was well supported during Zimbabwe's recent series against Ireland and there's a sense that Zimbabweans are warming to the game again, thanks to the recent form of the national side. Zimbabwe fans have formed their own supporters union, named Castle Corner after the beverage, and are campaigning for crowds to pour into the Queens Sports Club.
Whether the series will be well-followed outside of Zimbabwe remains to be seen. It is being played at the same time as the start of Australia's Test series in India, the Women's T20 World Cup and the PSL, and the end of the SA20, the ILT20 and the BPL, which leaves cricket lovers spoilt for choice.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent