Two weeks after India and England meet for the 2000th Test match at Lord's, London; two relatively unheralded sides meet under celebratory conditions of a different nature. Test cricket makes a long-awaited return to Zimbabwe.
It has been some six years since Zimbabwe last played a Test match. Political turmoil both in the government and in Zimbabwe Cricket resulted in virtually the entire first string squad leaving the country. Zimbabwe wisely decided to step away from Tests in an effort to bolster its struggling infrastructure. Today, a half decade later, most of Zimbabwe's old guard have returned in various capacities rendering the setup at nearly full strength.
Bangladesh too have been away from the premier form of the game, although for not nearly as long. Still, the subcontinent team will have to not only contend with 14 months of absence, but alien conditions as well.Â
On paper, Bangladesh are the far superior team. However, the game has never in its 134 year history been played "on paper," thus rendering such analyses as nothing more than mere conversation points. Zimbabwe will have prepared well for this encounter dating all the way back to last year's Intercontinental Cup tournament, where they finished second place. Series against the visiting New Zealand, Australia, and South African A teams has provided them with abundant practice ahead of this most important clash.Â
The pitch at the Harare Sports Club ground should offer more bounce than Bangladesh are accustomed to at home. However, the curators may be instructed to produce a surface that assists spinners, given that is Zimbabwe's unquestioned bowling strength, especially in ODIs. However, both sides will likely look to include at least 3 seamers in every game.
Zimbabwe Scouting Report
Several questions remain as to the exact playing elevens the hosts will decide on. The best guess at this moment is that Brian Vitori and Keegan Meth will join Christopher Mpofu to comprise the seam attack. Mpofu in particular has been impressive across formats by providing invaluable control to Zimbabwe's attack. Vitori is still raw and yet to receive any international caps, and Keegan Meth continues to be inconsistent with bat and sometimes with ball as a fast-bowling all-rounder. Ed Rainsford might sneak into the final squad due to his experience, but it seems as though neither fans nor selectors have full confidence in him at the moment. Tendai Chatara is young, has pace, and might also be considered although his performance against Australia A have been mediocre at best. All-rounder Elton Chigumbura is an experienced ex-captain, and seems to have rid himself of the burdens that leadership placed on his batting and bowling. He has scores of 95 and and a first class century in the recent series against Australia A and will be an important man down the order.
The spinners will be Zimbabwe's mainstay, more so in the ODI series. Ray Price leads a unit which are amongst the world's most economical, but sometimes struggle to take wickets. The elderly Price will most probably be partnered by young leg-spinner, Graeme Cremer, although Cremer might be put on the injured list. Prosper Utseya has improved his game by leaps and bounds over the past year, but still looks unlikely to crack the Test lineup unless the pitch offers serious assistance to slow bowling. Nonetheless, when he plays, Zimbabwe will always feel like posting a competitive performance.
On the batting front, Zimbabwe will be boosted by the return of Hamilton Masakadza, who along with Mohammad Ashraful, is one of the very few teenage Test centurions in history. He has the ability to play a long innings, and as he displayed against the Kenyans a couple of seasons ago, he can put really big scores on the board. Vusi Sibanda will likely open in Tests, courtesy of a solid run in the build up to the Bangladesh series. Newly appointed skipper, Brenden Taylor will probably occupy a spot at #4 in Tests, and continue to open in one-dayers. The middle order has proven to be Zimbabwe's weakness as they have tended to collapse from strong positions as of late. Craig Ervine has a ton of talent, but has not been able to translate that into big scores. The same could be said of Regis Chakabva. Malcolm Waller and Foster Mutizwa are the duo who have the best shot at getting a cap, but are currently on the outside looking in. Chigumbura offers big hitting down the order, but has been in wretched form over the past year. The tail can't bat, and that puts immense pressure on the top order with a middle order prone to self-destruction.Â
Tamim Iqbal has really emerged as an exciting firebrand at the very top of the order for the Tigers. Unfazed by the new ball, and often attacking from the outset, he has bustled his way to score 1000 Test runs faster than any other player in the history of the game, barring one man. Since the summer of 2009 tour of the Caribbean, Tamim has averaged better than 57 with the bat at a stellar strike rate of over 70 in Test matches. His ODI form is less consistent, but he is equally dangerous as his match-winning 154 during his previous trip to Zimbabwe will attest. Imrul Kayes is far more sedate, but his solidity in one day cricket is anticipated to tranlsate over to Test cricket. He's got issues with the short ball, but if he can get in his groove, then he is the type of accumulator who can easily put the bad balls away. Junaid Siddique will round out the top three, providing equal parts grit and gumption.
Shahriar Nafees will likely snatch a spot batting at two-down, and the classy southpaw will look to continue his dominance over the Zimbabwean attack. Although he does not warrant the spot, based on tour match performance, the ever-enigmatic Mohammad Ashraful will probably bat at number five. Always with game-breaking potential, new coach Stuart Law may yet find a way to filter the retardation and harness the energy that is trapped within "Sir Ash". Captain Shakib al Hasan will bat next, and it might be a better idea if he swaps places with either of Mushfiqur Rahim or Mahmudullah in the second innings if he must bowl a lot of overs in the match. Rahim will keep, and Riyad looks unlikely to get promoted up the order and so will bat at eight.
The final three spots will probably go to the pacers. A fractured hallux has already ruled out spearhead Shahadat Hossain, and he will be missed on what should be seam-friendly tracks in Harare and Bulawayo. Instead, the equally inexperienced duo of Rubel Hossain and Shafiul Islam will be leading the attack. Both can cause problems with their pace and movement, and Rubel is the best in the country when it comes to reversing the old ball. Should Bangladesh choose to operate a third seamer, the candidates are Nazmul Hossain and Robiul Islam, neither of whom inspires much confidence with the red ball at least.Â
Shakib will lead the spinners, and it won't be a surprise to see Abdur Razzak get in ahead of the third fast bowler, given his stellar record against Zimbabwe. Mahmudullah can also chip in usefully with his tight off-spin, and Ashraful can always be counted on to try and take a surprise wicket by tweaking his arm over.Â
The Past: History
Bangladesh won 3-1 (ODIs, Dec 2010)Â
Bangladesh won 4-1 (ODIs, Oct/Nov 2009)
Recent Head-to-HeadÂ in Zimbabwe
Bangladesh won 4-1 (ODIs, Aug 2009)
Bangladesh won 3-1 (ODIs, Feb 2007)
Zimbabwe won 3-2 (ODIs, Jul/Aug 2006)
Shakib al Hasan (*), Tamim Iqbal, Mushfiqur Rahim (+), Imrul Kayes, Junaid Siddique, Shahriar Nafees, Mohammad Ashraful, Shuvagoto Hom, Mahmudullah, Nasir Hossain, Abdur Razzak, Shafiul Islam, Rubel Hossain, Nazmul Hossain, Robiul Islam
The Future: Prediction
Zimbabwe's first line bowlers are catching some serious stick, conceding 282 without loss in less than a full day's play against Australia A. If the pitches aren't bowling friendly, they will struggle to take 15 wickets, let alone 20. But Bangladesh's lack of exposure for the past 14 months will serve to even things up perhaps. That being said, I see Bangladesh winning the one-off Test, and by triple digit margins (100 runs or more) or by 7-8 wickets.
The ODIs could be closer, but every time Zimbabwe have shown a spark, they've only flattered to deceive. Bangladesh will probably take the one-dayers four games to one, and it will be interesting to see if they drop the first game of the series as has been their habit recently.Â
Men of the Test match: Shafiul Islam (BAN), Brendan Taylor (ZIM)
Men of the Series (ODI): Abdur Razzak (BAN), Chris Mpofu (ZIM)