Pakistan launch their tour of Zimbabwe on Friday knowing fully well that confidence and momentum are two key areas they need to focus on ahead of a gruelling season and series against South Africa and Sri Lanka to follow.
The tourists completed a tour whitewash the last time they played here, and more of the same is what captain Misbah-ul-Haq (Mohammad Hafeez in Twenty20s) and coach Dav Whatmore will be looking for.
Misbah’s men come into this series having had a favourable tour of the West Indies, but Zimbabwe players, with the dust finally having settled on pay issues, will be eager to take on another big side, having hosted India earlier this month.
Dav Whatmore needs the wins
Whatmore is yet to win a Test as Pakistan coach since taking over 15 months ago. A narrow series loss in Sri Lanka in June 2012 was followed by a nightmare tour of South Africa earlier this year, where the batsmen just failed to cope with South African pace.
Whatmore, though, was not too concerned about Pakistan’s inability to finish off Tests but even he knows that, in the middle of all the criticism hurled at him, winning is the only way out of the mess—even if it is against Zimbabwe.
Playing just six Tests in 12 months does not help Whatmore’s or the players’ cause, but with a Test-heavy season starting now and the coach’s contract renewal talks coming up, the two-Test series against the minnows holds that extra bit of importance.
Testing bench strength
Pakistan have decided to go into this tour having handed recalls to tried-and-dumped youngsters, including Anwar Ali, Khurram Manzoor and Rahat Ali. While it looks difficult for all of them to get a constant run in the playing XI, any opportunity given will be a bonus for the trio that has been confined to domestic cricket for the last few years.
The PCB’s reluctance to rest key players—Misbah, Saeed Ajmal, Mohammad Irfan—for this low-key series has been surprising, especially with a gruelling schedule coming up. The rests would’ve meant more youngsters being tested for the future with a chance to impress throughout the tour and not an odd match here or there.
Pakistan’s missing men
While there is a presence of enough seniors in the squad, Pakistan will be hampered by the absence of Umar Akmal, who was recently flown home after fainting during the Caribbean Twenty20 league.
Umar had performed admirably in the West Indies with the bat and behind the stumps, and this was seen as a chance to further establish himself in the playing XI—something he has been unable to do since his debut in 2009 despite all the talent he possesses.
Also missing (still) is Umar Gul who underwent knee surgery earlier this year and missed the Champions Trophy as well as the tour of the West Indies. Gul is hoping to be for the series against South Africa, but Irfan and Junaid Khan have performed well in his absence.
It is now time for Wahab Riaz to show his worth in the Test side and for Anwar, Rahat and Asad Ali to prove themselves as adequate backups and even contenders for the future.
Zimbabwe look past the off-the-field issues
Zimbabwe cricket’s issues off the field keep coming up over and over again. Retirements, protests and pay issues are hovering about constantly, ensuring the limelight is taken away from the team’s performance on the field.
The hosts do not have an Andy Flower or a Heath Streak in the side any more. Even Tatenda Taibu, the boy turned into a man, is not in the side. But while upsetting Pakistan at home is a huge ask, the presence of captain Brendan Taylor, Hamilton Masakadza, Vusi Sibanda and Elton Chigumbura in the side ensures youngsters are learning while they play and the team keeps up the fighting spirit.
For Zimbabwe, playing India and Pakistan at home in a single month is an achievement enough. Any addition to that—upset victories, close finishes—will be a huge bonus.