By Enock Muchinjo
THE first Test match between Zimbabwe and South Africa begins today in Cape Town with the tourists hoping to put up a competitive show against a strong Proteas outfit.
Zimbabwe welcome back inspirational former captain Heath Streak who last week ended his 10-month strike by signing a new contract with Zimbabwe Cricket.
Andy Blignaut, who also made a return to Zimbabwe cricket last week after deciding not to go back to Australian provincial side Tasmania, has also been drafted into the team taking to the field this morning.
The return of the two all-rounders will definitely go a long way in strengthening the youthful Zimbabwe team, which has been reeling under lack of experience and bowling depth. The inclusion of pace bowlers Streak and Blignaut will add teeth to a Zimbabwe attack which has been the team’s Archilles’ heel since the dissenting players left the team in April last year.
With both Douglas Hondo and Tinashe Panyangara now out of the rest of the tour due to injuries, Streak and Blignaut are set to take the new ball in a somewhat depleted seam attack. The availability of Hondo and Panyangara would have provided Zimbabwe with its best attack in a long time.
Young Chris Mpofu will now have the responsibility of working with Streak and Blignaut as the frontline bowlers, with all-rounder Elton Chigumbura coming in to back up the trio. As a result of the shortage of seamers, another young player from Bulawayo, Tawanda Mupariwa, might be thrown into the attacking fray for Zimbabwe.
But then there is a danger that the hostile South African batsmen will want to target the younger bowlers in the later spells of their innings. That is where the spinners will come in handy. Leg spinner Graeme Cremer also arrived in South Africa this week, joining Prosper Utseya to form Zimbabwe’s first choice spin attack. A large chunk of Zimbabwe’s success will depend on how the slow bowlers fair against the South African batters and the youngsters will be hard-pressed to take crucial wickets in the matches.
While on the bowling side Zimbabwe seems to have found some remedy, the same cannot exactly be said of the batting order, which crumbled and handed victory to Bangladesh in a two-match Test series recently. Streak will bring some level of stability on the batting side as well, and is poised to rekindle his exciting combination with captain Tatenda Taibu in the middle order.
If Zimbabwe are to push South Africa to the fifth day in the Test matches, the batting definitely has to click and the top order has to resist the South African bowling onslaught of Shaun Pollock and company for longer periods. Zimbabwe coach Phil Simmons will be hoping that more of his batsmen come to the party, and men like Barney Rogers and Hamilton Masakadza must carry a lot more of the load.
Opener Rogers will be required to carry his remarkable limited-overs form the Bangladesh and South Africa matches into the Test arena. He did not play particularly well in the Tests in Bangladesh, but came on well in the ODIs where he was voted man of the series.
Rogers will need the South Africa Tests to establish himself as a key batsman in the Zimbabwe team in the longer version of the game. His occasional right-arm slow orthodox is an added advantage that will give his skipper an extra spinning option.
Another important player in the team, Masakadza, will also need this Test series to re-establish himself as a batsman of note on the Test scene. After getting a Test century on his debut against the West Indies in 1999 and his name in the record books as the youngest player to do so then, he needs a good show against the world-class South African outfit to set him on a path to more big scores and success in his promising career.
Vice-captain Dion Ebrahim also comes back to the side after having been dropped for the ODI series and featured for Zimbabwe “A” against the touring Bangladesh “A” side. The Test series is a good opportunity for Ebrahim to mend his international reputation that has been rocked by a poor run of form in both versions of the game.
The Test series might also see the capping of 18-year-old Sean Williams, who was initially supposed to return home after the ODIs but batted his way into the hearts of the selectors in the warm-up and ODI matches. There is not much pressure on the former Falcon College student, and the youngster will be hoping to kick-start his Test career with aplomb.
On the South Africa side, the Proteas are expected to approach the match with all guns blazing. This is a Test series South Africa want to win at all costs after the disappointment of a Test series defeat to England. Their players will be chasing big scores and bowling records which will be a bonus to the team.
Being overwhelming favourites to roll past Zimbabwe in the two matches is also a psychological boost for the South Africans. Zimbabwe need an appropriate response to this scenario.
The youthful Zimbabwe side should be eager to show what they learnt in Bangladesh, and with Streak back in the side, the youngsters have a proven warrior to show them the way. Given that Taibu is another great fighter in the team, all that remains is for the other players to put up positive contributions of their own.