The Test series is on.
Well, the opening Test atleast, according to Zimbabwe captain Brendan Taylor, who confirmed that the players were willing to "take the word of ZC that they will pay before the second Test."
Zimbabwe’s pay issues cropped up again ahead of the ODI series-decider as the players boycotted the training session on Friday. The match did go ahead—with the hosts surrendering meekly—but non-payment of dues had the Test matches in jeopardy.
Will Zimbabwe be able to concentrate on the field?
Zimbabwe players will take the field on Tuesday, but they could be without Taylor who awaits the birth of his son.
They will, however, take confidence from the fact that Pakistan have lost to them twice in the past—an innings defeat in Harare and a seven-wicket loss on a quick, green Peshawar track. The hosts won’t have the services of the Flower brothers or Heath Streak, or even anyone that comes close to the talent they had, so a repeat of those results seems implausible despite all the promise shown in the last two weeks.
Pakistan need Test wins
Pakistan will be keen to play Test matches again after losing both series—in Sri Lanka last summer and in South Africa earlier this year—after that whitewash over top-ranked England early last year. They take on the Proteas once again in a couple of months, so a good result against Zimbabwe, who are currently unranked in the Test rankings, will help Misbah’s men gather the much-needed momentum.
Pakistan have yet to win a Test under coach Dav Whatmore—who took over from Mohsin Khan last April—and he isn’t too bothered by the results. However, Whatmore and Misbah both know that the Test-heavy next six months need to have results coming Pakistan’s way.
Weakened fast-bowling a concern
The tourists will be without their lead fast-bowler Umar Gul, and they’ve also rested the seven-foot tall Mohammad Irfan.
This may force the return of Wahab Riaz to the Test arena after a absence of two years, and he will partner with either Junaid Khan or Rahat Ali—a total of 18 Tests shared by the trio—providing the tourists go in with a batting heavy team.
However, the tourists’ lack of experience in the pace department will be more than made up by the spinners—Saeed Ajmal, Abdur Rehman and Mohammad Hafeez. Ajmal and Rehman demolished a strong English batting lineup 18 months ago, flattening them for just 72 as they chased 145 in Dubai. Rehman was surprisingly omitted from the playing XI in South Africa earlier this year but is set to regain his place.
Much will depend on the spinners against a determined, yet inexperienced, Zimbabwe batting lineup that stood up to the challenge in the ODI series. Hafeez’s golden arm—provided the all-rounder is passed fit for the match—is always a bonus, and Pakistan also have the leg break of Azhar Ali to turn to if needed.
Can Zimbabwe sustain five days of pressure?
The hosts beat Pakistan in the opening ODI, their first win over this opposition in 15 years. But, while Zimbabwe showed glimpses of confidence and promise in the Twenty20s and ODIs, maintaining that for three sessions every day seems like a tough task, especially if Taylor was forced to sit out.
They also tackled Ajmal and Shahid Afridi quite confidently but the off-spinner in a Test match—with close-in fielders—is a different proposition altogether. Zimbabwe were also good with aggressive starts in the limited-over series but will that aggression pave way for confidence and maturity when the ball turns from white to red remains to be seen.
Their bowlers will also need to deal with Ali, Misbah and the return of Younus Khan—all three quite capable of asserting their authority on proceedings via an apt mix of defence and strokeplay. Zimbabwe did manage to restrict the flow of runs in the limited-overs format, but will they be able to add wickets to that is the big question.
Zimbabwe, despite the upset win in the opening ODI, definitely start the Test series as underdogs.
Taylor is still unsure of whether he will play or not. The pending pay issues will be an added distraction. Sean Williams, one of the starters from the ODI series, has refused to play until he is paid. Kyle Jarvis has already said goodbye to Zimbabwe cricket.
Pakistan should ease to a series whitewash given their strength with the bat and the spin department. However, Zimbabwe are capable of providing jitters. Unfortunately, with the gulf between the two sets of teams, that is all the hosts look to deliver.
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