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Zim vs Bangladesh: Crunch time

Travel seems second nature to Zimbabweans. Almost a third of their population – approximately four million people – reside outside the country. But as a cricket team, even one that’s constantly at or near the bottom of the Test rankings, they remain vulnerable visitors almost everywhere.

Zimbabwe’s home record reflects their stature as one of the weaker Test teams – nine wins in 52 matches and a win-loss ratio of 0.33 – but it’s positively brilliant compared to their away record – two wins in 42 Tests and a win-loss ratio of 0.06. Recently their fragility in the face of the unknown has only become more glaring.

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Since making their Test comeback in August 2011, Zimbabwe have been overseas for three bilateral series, and have played three Tests, six ODIs and six T20s They haven’t won any of those games. Their only glimmer of hope was at the World T20 where, even though they missed out on the main draw, they were victorious in two matches in the qualifying phase.

That tournament was held in Bangladesh and although Zimbabwe did not face the hosts, having tasted success in the country is in itself a positive ahead of the visit.

Bangladesh is the scene of one of Zimbabwe’s two away Test wins (Pakistan is the other) and is the only place where they have a realistic hope of similar success given the current status of their cricket. It is also the place they are most familiar with and the opposition they know best.

Zimbabwean players have spent time in Bangladesh’s domestic tournaments. Brendan Taylor, Elton Chigumbura, Vusi Sibanda, Hamilton Masakadza and Sean Williams have been part of the Bangladesh Premier League and the Dhaka Premier League and have left their mark on the events, allowing both the Bangladesh public and players to examine their potential.

A good example is Chigumbura, who was the batsman on strike when Alauddin Babu conceded the most runsin an over in List A cricket. Alauddin conceded 39 runs in that over, including seven extras. Chigumbura scored the other 32. Bangladesh would not have forgotten that.

Those types of incidents also form the fabric of what is ultimately an intense rivalry, albeit on a smaller scale than cricket’s higher-profile contests. A Bangladesh-Zimbabwe series does not carry the same prestige as an Ashes series or a clash between India and Pakistan but it is a mini version because the teams are of a similar level, especially now.

It would not have gone unnoticed in the Zimbabwe camp that Bangladesh are wallowing in a pool of a poor results themselves and are without one of their main bowlers, Robiul Islam. That may make Zimbabwe feel better about their own absentees. A row with coach Stephen Mangongo has meant Sean Williams has not made the trip, despite consistent showings in the one-day series against South Africa and the triangular which followed featuring Australia, and Prosper Utseya has been banned from bowling because of an illegal action.

Utseya will likely be missed more because he would have been Zimbabwe’s main spinner. Now they will have to rely on inexperienced bowlers to fill in for a man with more than a decade of international cricket under his belt, but the early signs are that Zimbabwe have some suitable candidates. Legspinners Tafadzwa Kamungozi and Natsai M’shangwe shared seven wickets between them in the practice match and Kamungozi economy rate was under two runs an over. With John Nyumbu to bowl offspin and left-armer Wellington Masakadza also part of the attack, Zimbabwe have options but have to hope none of them are overawed.

It would not have gone unnoticed in the Zimbabwe camp that Bangladesh are wallowing in a pool of a poor results themselves and are without one of their main bowlers, Robiul Islam. That may make Zimbabwe feel better about their own absentees. A row with coach Stephen Mangongo has meant Sean Williams has not made the trip, and Prosper Utseya has been banned from bowling because of an illegal action

It is far more likely their batting will be intimidated, particularly by the conditions. That was the case on their two other trips since their Test comeback. In New Zealand in early 2012, Zimbabwe’s Test side was bowled out twice in a day but they did have a half-centurion in Regis Chakabva. In the West Indies in 2013, they managed to score over 200 only once in four innings and none of their batsmen collected more than 100 runs in the series with the only fifty scored by Tino Mawoyo, who is not part of this squad.

On both trips, elements like pace from Trent Boult and Tim Southee, subtle skills like Chris Martin’s ability to move the ball just the right amount, and turn from Shane Shillingford is what accounted for Zimbabwe’s batsmen. The last of those will be worrying, because it is what they will face in Bangladesh. It also presents an opportunity to demonstrate whether they have made any progress.

Zimbabwe will rely on the experience of Hamilton Masakadza and Brendan Taylor to shoulder most of the responsibility of scoring runs but will also be heartened by what some of their other players did in the warm-up game. Craig Ervine, who is making his return after 18 months of being unavailable, top-scored with an undefeated 85, while Sikandar Raza, who is on his first tour, managed a 44 and 45.

The spotlight will shine brightly on the opener, likely to be Vusi Sibanda, who may be on his last inch of rope as an international cricketer. Sibanda scored a Test half-century 15 innings ago in November 2011, and has not made more than 11 in his last five ODIs, with only one fifty in the last nine. He was dropped during the series against Afghanistan and South Africa and has been made to understand that he will have to make way for someone else unless he begins to perform like the senior player he is.

Since Mangongo took over, pretty much all of Zimbabwe’s players have been on notice. Not even Taylor was spared during the South Africa series. That approach is thought to breed uncertainty in cricketers who are already insecure enough but Mangongo has been unrelenting. He has explained it as stemming from a desire to lift Zimbabwe cricket out of what he has termed mediocrity.

What Mangongo will be mindful of is that he too may be on a trial of sorts this time. Under his watch, at least since he took over the role permanently in July, Zimbabwe took a Test against South Africa to a fourth day, bowled South Africa out in an ODI for the first time since the 1999 World Cup, and beat Australia in a fifty-over game for only the second time in their competitive history. Those results don’t read too badly, especially when set against the backdrop of the upheaval which has begun to seem normal in Zimbabwean cricket.

But the real test comes now, when Zimbabwe will be away from the safety of the Harare Sports Club, where almost all their home matches are played, and in the eye of a different public. Will Mangongo remain merciless enough to ban those who are deemed disruptive (think Tinashe Panyangara during the triangular) or adopt a softer, more unifying approach in the face of adversity? The answer to that question could end up making a big difference to Zimbabwe’s morale when they return home, and perhaps even their results in the series.

Perhaps most important will be the second half of the tour because, as things stand, they are the only ODIs Zimbabwe will play between now and next year’s World Cup. Zimbabwe will play domestic competitions, but they will not experience the intensity and attrition of an international clash, which other teams will be enjoying en masse in the lead up to the event.

Although conditions and opposition will be entirely different at the tournament, they will carry some much-needed confidence into Australia and New Zealand if they win in Bangladesh. Even if there was no major event to plan for, Zimbabwe would still have incentive to perform well in Bangladesh, if only to show that they, like many of their countrymen, can travel well.

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