Zimbabwe in need of top-order solidity

Match facts

November 6-10, 2016, Harare
Start time 10.00 am (0800 GMT)

Sean Williams’ dismissal for 40 on the final day of the first Test hastened Zimbabwe’s loss © Associated Press

Big Picture

In July, Zimbabwe hosted New Zealand for two Tests in Bulawayo. Considering this is only the third time in 11 years that they’re playing four Tests in a season at home, Sri Lanka’s tour ought to have provided continuity. Instead, the players were involved, not for the first time, in a protest with Zimbabwe Cricket over non-payment of match fees. When matters were temporarily resolved in September, the board was grappling with issues surrounding their annual audit which was yet to be submitted to the ICC more than three months after it was due.

That delayed the appointment of a new head coach. When Heath Streak finally took over from Makhaya Ntini, who briefly held the role after Dav Whatmore’s sacking, he had a little over three weeks to prepare a side that that was once again short on cricket in the lead-up to a major series, with the domestic season yet to be finalised. Considering all this, Zimbabwe’s performance in the first Test, also their 100th overall, in Harare was seen as a massive improvement even though they eventually lost by 225 runs.

They batted close to 200 overs in the Test – something they’ve done just twice in the last five years – and took it into the final hour before Sri Lanka dug deep into their reserves to eke out a win. The resistance in both innings was led by Graeme Cremer, the captain, who followed-up his maiden Test century with a gritty 43 in the second dig. It somewhat made up for the top order’s inability to build on starts, something the team management would have taken note of.

The one aspect that has always been encouraging – even in Zimbabwe’s cricketing decline over the last decade-and-a-half – has been the fielding. That came a cropper in Harare – as many as seven catches were dropped in the first innings. Their bowling effort, typically restrictive, was led by debutant medium-pacer Carl Mumba, who took four wickets in the second innings. The other bowlers were largely ineffective. Therefore, a shot at equalling the series seems far-fetched for Zimbabwe, although walking away with a draw is possible, like they showed last week.

For Sri Lanka, time spent in the middle here will take them a step closer to narrowing down on their combination for the bigger battles in South Africa next month. Strong performances from Kusal Perera and Upul Tharanga will add to a healthy selection dilemma once Dinesh Chandimal and Angelo Mathews, the designated captain, return from injuries.

Rangana Herath’s delayed declaration in the second innings may have been scrutinised had Zimbabwe managed to hold on. For now, it’s a decision that can be firmly put on the back-burner as Sri Lanka aim for a clean sweep to cap Herath’s first – and possibly last – series as captain.

Form guide

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Dilruwan Perera’s utility could be tested on surfaces that don’t turn as much as the ones in Sri Lanka © Associated Press

In the spotlight

Malcolm Waller came into the fray for selection for the first Test on the back of 37 and 87 for Zimbabwe A in a four-day fixture against Pakistan A. Prior to that, he recorded three successive half-centuries in the 50-over format. He made scores of 22 and 0 in the first Test; the timing of his dismissal in the second innings even as Zimbabwe fought to save the Test was crucial. With Tarisai Musakanda, who also made runs against Pakistan A, breathing down his neck, there could be pressure on Waller to make a significant score here.

Dilruwan Perera‘s utility in this Sri Lankan line-up, especially at home, can’t be understated. He’s a more-than-capable lower-order batsman, and a tidy offspinner. But on surfaces that aid swing and seam movement, like Sri Lanka could encounter in South Africa, it remains to be seen how effective he would be. Perhaps another solid performance in the second Test could go a long way in convincing the team management that he could be a contender for a spot even if Sri Lanka decide to play an extra fast bowler.

Team news

Streak and Tatenda Taibu, the selection convenor, have spoken of the need for continuity, which means Zimbabwe are likely to field the same XI despite their top-order batsmen failing to convert starts. That could mean Musakanda, who made 87 against Pakistan A to earn his selection in the Test squad, may have to wait longer for his first Test cap.

Zimbabwe: (probable) 1 Tino Mawoyo, 2 Brian Chari, 3 Hamilton Masakadza, 4 Craig Ervine, 5 Sean Williams, 6 Peter Moor, 7 Malcolm Waller, 8 Graeme Cremer, 9 Donald Tiripano, 10 Carl Mumba, 11 Chris Mpofu

Sri Lanka picked up 20 wickets, but were stretched a fair bit. With the top order among the runs in both innings, there could be a temptation to bring in left-arm wrist spinner Lakshan Sandakan to boost their bowling stocks. That could mean Asela Gunaratne, who made 53 and 16 not out, may have to make way.

Sri Lanka: (probable) 1 Kaushal Silva, 2 Dimuth Karunaratne, 3 Kusal Perera, 4 Kusal Mendis, 5 Upul Tharanga, 6 Dananjaya de Silva, 7 Dilruwan Perera, 8 Rangana Herath, 9 Suranga Lakmal, 10 Lakshan Sandakan/Asela Gunaratne 11 Lahiru Kumara

Pitch and conditions

A similar pitch to the one last week is expected, which points to another workout for the bowlers. There is solace, though, in the fact that conditions are expected to be a lot cooler following intermittent spells of summer rain since the conclusion of the first Test. There could be brief rain interruptions from time-to-time in this Test.

Stats and trivia

  • Herath will surpass Anil Kumble and have the second-most number of wickets by a spinner in his first 75 Tests if he takes nine wickets in the match. Kumble had 346; Herath, after 74 games, is on 338. Muttiah Muralitharan tops the list with 420 wickets after 75
  • Cremer aggregated more than half of his career runs (258 runs in 26 innings) in the first Test alone through scores of 102* and 43

Quotes

“We know that we can’t control what decisions go our way, but as long as we’re playing that positive brand of cricket then hopefully a few things will go our way. We’ve just got to do the best we can with bat or ball.”
Zimbabwe’s captain Graeme Cremer when asked about his team being rather luckless with umpiring decisions in the first Test

“From the beginning it was a different challenge and a different experience but I’ve enjoyed every moment. I’ve had a lot of confidence from my playing career, so that has helped as well.”
Sri Lanka’s stand-in captain Rangana Herath

Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.


Source: ESPN Crickinfo

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