Harare, Zimbabwe – Zimbabwe are banking on helpful subcontinent pitches for their spin bowlers and the expertise of West Indies great Brian Lara after a late change of heart from all-rounder Sean Ervine dented the team's World Cup hopes.
Ervine was included in Zimbabwe's final squad and was set to return to international cricket at the World Cup after a seven-year absence, before he withdrew at the last minute, citing “personal reasons,” and returned to English county side Hampshire.
Ervine's initial recall boosted Zimbabwe's chances after a period of turmoil that saw some its best players flee the country following a dispute with the national board. The team slipped from one-time dangerous underdog to near no-hopers.
Zimbabwe's disappointment at losing probably its only top-class player on the eve of the tournament was evident in a statement from head selector and former captain, Alistair Campbell, who suggested Ervine preferred the “comfortable life” of English country cricket.
Ervine “obviously decided at the last minute he might not be up to the challenges of international cricket after all,” Campbell said.
However bitter the blow, Zimbabwe must get over it ahead of their opening World Cup match against defending champion Australia on Feb. 21.
As it turns out, Ervine's replacement did solve one problem for Zimbabwe. The exclusion of the out-of-form Hamilton Masakadza had left just one recognized opener in Brendan Taylor, so the addition of the 23-capped Terry Duffin will add some depth at the top of the order.
Ervine's younger brother, Craig, was Zimbabwe's best batsman in their ODI series loss to Bangladesh last year. He will again be expected to contribute heavily in a batting lineup without any major stars.
Captain Elton Chigumbura and the experienced Tatenda Taibu also offer some batting resilience, but Zimbabwe has identified slow bowling as its best chance of upsetting the opposition in the subcontinent.
Four specialist spinners in Ray Price, former captain Prosper Utseya, Graeme Cremer and Greg Lamb were picked in the 15-man squad selected specifically with conditions in India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh in mind.
“We are going to miss that allround ability Sean (Ervine) would have brought to the side, but I am pleased with the talent we have got in our squad,” bowling coach Heath Streak said. “We have got a lot of options and there is no hiding the fact that our strength has been our spin department – it is going to suit us going into the subcontinent.”
Zimbabwe will also be strengthened by the experience and expertise of Lara, who linked up with the team as a batting consultant as it acclimatised to Asian conditions at a training camp in Dubai ahead of the World Cup.
If Lara, who played 299 limited-overs internationals, can inspire Zimbabwe's batsmen to produce some consistency, the spin bowlers will have a chance with runs to defend.
Lara will join a management team made up of English head coach Alan Butcher and former Zimbabwe internationals Grant Flower and Streak, the batting and bowling coaches respectively.
They will attempt to revive Zimbabwe's reputation as a dangerous underdog which progressed to the Super Six stage of the World Cup in 1999 and 2003. Zimbabwe beat Australia at the 1983 World Cup, their first appearance, and then upset India and South Africa in 1999 for three of their most famous one-day victories.
However, they couldn't even beat Ireland at the 2007 World Cup as they went winless and slipped to an early exit as the effects of the 2004 player exodus was felt.
Even with the gradual slide, former Australia bowler Jason Gillespie, who now coaches in Zimbabwe, thinks some of the old fight may have returned to the team.
“Yes, they (Zimbabwe) are very much the outsiders but every side can beat any of the others. That's been proven. Upsets do happen. And Zimbabwe should keep that very much in mind,” Gillespie said.
“My advice to Australia would be 'don't take Zimbabwe lightly. They are dangerous and they've beaten you before.”'
Pakistan, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, Canada and Kenya are Zimbabwe's other World Cup opponents in Group A.
– Zimbabwe squad: Elton Chigumbura (captain), Regis Chakabva, Charles Coventry, Graeme Cremer, Terry Duffin, Craig Ervine, Greg Lamb, Shingi Masakadza, Chris Mpofu, Ray Price, Ed Rainsford, Tatenda Taibu, Brendan Taylor, Prosper Utseya, Sean Williams. –Sapa-AP