FOR once there was a heartening atmosphere about the Zimbabwe cricket team as they went through nets at Harare Sports Club yesterday in preparation for the forthcoming ODI series with Bangladesh in Bulawayo.
Perhaps it has to do with the makeâ€“up of the training squad that includes returnees Mark Vermeulen and Charles Coventry and the emergence of young batsmen like Forster Mutizwa and Malcolm Waller â€” a development which intensifies competition for places in the final squad.
Regardless, the players went about practice with a new sense of spirit that has been lacking in this team up until the 5-0 whitewash of Kenya in February.
Captain Prosper Utseya, himself a transformed man in terms of self-confidence, summed up the mood with a bold declaration ahead of the five-match series at Queens Sports Club.
â€œWeâ€™ve reached a stage where weâ€™ve lost too many times to Bangladeshâ€ Utseya said. â€œI think how we play their spinners will be key. We will put them (the spinners) under pressure from the very onset.â€
Under the public spotlight, Utseya cuts a very reserved demeanour, but behind closed changing rooms he is said to be quite forthright and sharp-tongued if he gets less than expected from his charges.
Â â€œWe had a meeting in which we said we want to play cricket the Zim way,â€ he said. â€œWe know we will be facing three quality spinners and we have to be prepared to face up to it. We said we need to have a killer punch. That cannot be taught or practised. Guys have to be hungry.
â€œIn the meeting I used the example of West Indies. They have their big three players, (Chris) Gayle, (Shiv) Chanderpaul and (Ramnaresh) Sarwan. There is never a time when they all fail. Everyone contributes around these guys. Chanderpaul is one of the most reliable players in the world. We need someone like that for Zim. We need to have three or four core senior players taking it upon themselves. It must be a routine thing. For example, a guy like Stu (Matsikenyeri) or Hami (Masakadza) who has played over 60 ODIs must be aware of his responsibility in the team. Guys must take ownership of how they play.â€
As expected, Utseyaâ€™s concern was more on the batting side.
He said: â€œFar too often the bowlers got us in good positions but we ended up throwing that away, and it goes back to the Sri Lanka series when I thought we should have picked a win or two.
â€œ(But) there is good competition among the players now. We now have the likes of Mark (Vermeulen) back in the fold and Vusi (Sibanda) is also here. There is pressure on everyone to perform.â€
Commenting on the teamâ€™s lack of match fitness after missing out on the ICC World Twenty20 and New Zealandâ€™s cancellation of their tour of Zimbabwe, Utseya said:
â€œWe definitely missed out. It would have given us good preparation, in different conditions. But then we played a lot of cricket in our domestic season. It was nice to see our batsmen getting big scores, and the bowlers taking good wickets.â€
Zimbabweâ€™s batting will be strengthened by Mark Vermeulenâ€™s anticipated comeback, looking sharp in the nets as he did yesterday.
â€œIâ€™m much fitter,â€ said talented 30-year-old opener. â€œIâ€™m hitting the ball alright. I didnâ€™t have a long off-season, busy in the nests hitting the ball.
â€œItâ€™s been five years; so obviously itâ€™s going be great. I hope to get another chance again and hopefully get big runs for Zim.â€
Meanwhile, most players in the training squad will sharpen up in the Twenty20 Takashinga Premier Winter League Winter which gets underway on Sunday at Sports Club.
Four select teams have been formed. Hamilton Masakadza captains Chaminuka, Tongogara are led by Utseya while Elton Chigumbura will skipper Tangwena. A fourth side, Red Lions, made up of former internationals, is led by former Zimbabwe Test batsman Trevor Gripper and includes such players as Doug Marillier, Barney Rogers and Lance Malloch-Brown.
Tongogara plays Tangwena in the first match with Red Lions and Chaminuka clashing in the afternoon.
BY ENOCK MUCHINJO