For the first time since 2017, Zimbabwe have the chance to play Test cricket against a side other than Afghanistan or Bangladesh. While that might be welcome in itself, the home side showed enough against Pakistan in the shorter formats to aspire to more than just a participation trophy in the upcoming two-match series.
Zimbabwe play this format so exceedingly sparingly against top Test sides it’s difficult to know what to expect, and easy to empathise with a side that gets such few opportunities to make coherent plans across matches, series and seasons. The last time they played against a top eight side, for instance, came against South Africa in 2017; just two of the 11 who lined up for that game are part of the squad that takes on Pakistan. But to search for real inspiration against the visitors, the coaching staff might be reminding them of the last time this particular opposition played Test cricket on Zimbabwean soil.
Eight years ago, a Pakistan Test side captained by Misbah-ul-Haq famously fell to a 24-run defeat in Harare, allowing the hosts to square the series; arguably their most impressive Test achievement in the past two decades. Only one player from each side who played that Test will feature again in Harare on Thursday (Brendan Taylor and Azhar Ali), but there is little doubt the discussions in the Zimbabwean dressing room will repeatedly revert back to that afternoon as a reminder this side doesn’t intend to merely make up the numbers.
Pakistan, meanwhile, are in the odd position of having won all three white-ball series on this tour of South Africa and Zimbabwe without managing to appease nearly any of their fan base. Misbah, intent on shutting out that fateful 2013 Test from his memory, will be aware of the lose-lose situation this series throws up for Pakistan. Anything besides two resounding victories will be looked upon as failure, even if the Pakistan head coach has the experience and wisdom to know away Test wins can never quite be taken for granted.
Pakistan’s mid-table ranking in this format is well earned; under the current coaching set-up, they continue to win games against opposition they might be expected to beat – especially at home – without seriously challenging the top sides away. Pakistan’s away record has been especially miserable over the past three years, with nine losses in the past eleven Tests and no wins; the two draws came in rain-affected games against England last summer. This series represents a golden opportunity to reverse that trend. This Pakistan Test side may be a flawed one – a fact that won’t change regardless of this series’ outcome – but they will feel they possess the quality to do something they haven’t since West Indies in 2017: return home with a Test series trophy in their luggage.
(last five completed matches, most recent first)
In the spotlight
Regis Chakabva scored a match-winning 164 for the Eagles in the Logan Cup earlier this month, but evidence of an ability to translate that domestic prowess into international prolificacy has been scant. It was a similar case in the T20s, where strong showings in the domestic cup were followed by 21 runs across three innings against Pakistan. In Test cricket, the wicketkeeper has managed just one half-century in his last 21 innings, and at 33, will be acutely aware his chances in future might be numbered. In the first T20 in particular, his wicketkeeping left something to be desired, and with Brendan Taylor also part of the side, it’s unlikely he will feel no pressure on his place. Zimbabwe will hope he manages to prove the point he sorely needs to at some point in the next two Tests.
Should Abid Ali get a game, this series may be his final chance at establishing himself as Pakistan’s first-choice opener for now. Following a lightning start against Sri Lanka, the opener has faded away badly, managing just one half-century since his first two Tests, and averaging only 17.71. He was dismissed without scoring against Bangladesh, was unconvincing in England, uncomfortable in New Zealand and downright clueless against South Africa in Pakistan earlier this year. A few big scores might buy him some time at the top just yet, especially since Shan Masood continues to be out of favour, and his opening partner Imran Butt is even less established in the side.
Luke Jongwe’s impressive T20I series puts him in pole position for a Test debut, while Craig Ervine and Sikander Raza’s absences mean there are places in the middle order for grabs. Roy Kaia, whose only international game was a rained-off contest in Lahore in 2015, looks set to earn a Test debut.
Zimbabwe (probable): 1 Prince Masvaure, 2 Kevin Kasuza, 3 Sean Williams (capt), 4 Tarisai Musakanda, 5 Brendan Taylor, 6 Regis Chakabva (wk), 7 Luke Jongwe, 8 Wellington Masakadza, 9 Donald Tiripano, 10 Blessing Muzarabani, 11 Victor Nyauchi.
Yasir Shah’s absence will allow Zahid Mehmood a Test debut, but the core of the side remains the same as the one that won a home series against South Africa in January.
Pakistan (probable): 1 Imran Butt, 2 Abid Ali, 3 Azhar Ali, 4 Babar Azam (capt), 5 Fawad Alam, 6 Mohammad Rizwan (wk), 7 Faheem Ashraf, 8 Hasan Ali, 9 Zahid Mehmood, 10 Nauman Ali, 11 Shaheen Shah Afridi.
Pitch and conditions
Showers are forecast on the weekend, but persistent wet weather is unlikely. The surface in Harare tends to be slow, with little bounce, with spinners growing into the game as the Test wears on.
Stats that matter
- Zimbabwe have won more Tests against Pakistan than any other side except Bangladesh, with three wins in 17 matches.
- Shaheen Afridi is two wickets away from 50 Test scalps, while Hasan Ali needs seven to reach that number in four fewer Tests than his team-mate.
“We would like to carry on the same winning momentum we got from the series we played at home against South Africa. The conditions are difficult here but we’ve adjusted.”
Pakistan captain Babar Azam wants to draw on the positive memories of the series win against South Africa in January
“We are pretty excited for the Tests. The wickets look extremely good for that and a new bunch of players will join the team and start their training.”
Zimbabwe captain Sean Williams on their playing against Pakistan
Danyal Rasool is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @Danny61000