Test preview: Zimbabwe v Pakistan

Victory over Bangladesh confirmed Zimbabwe have made strides, but a Test against Pakistan will give an indication of just how high they can fly in their new incarnation, writes Tristan Holme.

And so the real test begins for Zimbabwe. Victory over Bangladesh has confirmed that they have made strides forward in the past few years while Bangladesh have at best stood still, but Thursday's Test against Pakistan will give an indication of just how high they can fly in their new incarnation.

Prior to their 2004 meltdown Zimbabwe were expected to beat Bangladesh and at least give the other lower-lying Test nations a run for their money. In their second coming they've completed the first bit and now have the chance to show whether this Pakistan challenge comes to soon.

Fortunately for them, Pakistan have left their best pace bowlers at home and remain a side that is building for the future in the wake of last year's spot-fixing bans, rather than a well-oiled machine. Four of their touring party are yet to make their Test debuts, and five others have played only 24 matches between them.

Zimbabwe have also traditionally fared better against Pakistan than other Test nations – two of their four Test wins against nations other than Bangladesh have been against Pakistan. One was their first ever Test victory back in 1995, while the other came in Peshawar in 1998 and led to their first series victory.

Nevertheless they will be up against it, because Pakistan boast a strong and reasonably experienced top six, and are using the tour to wheel out the latest fast bowlers from their seemingly endless production line. 21-year-old Junaid Khan will be one to watch out for after a solid season with Lancashire and a four-wicket return in the warm-up game. Fellow left-armer Sohail Tanvir seems likely to play his third Test – four years after his first two – while Sohail Khan could play his second Test match after a two-year absence.

Saeed Ajmal and Mohammad Hafeez will perform spin duties on a pitch that's likely to take some turn towards the back-end of the match, but it remains to be seen exactly what Pakistan decide to do with Shoaib Malik. A late entry to the squad and a controversial and supposedly divisive figure, does he deserve to walk straight back into the Test side after the coaching team have invested so much in a fairly settled (by Pakistan standards <i>extremely</i> settled) top six?

Zimbabwe could be without Elton Chigumbura as the all-rounder battles a knee injury, but with Greg Lamb back in the fray a potentially tricky decision might be made for the selectors, who probably want a second spinner in the side given the conditions.

Offspinning all-rounder Lamb took wickets and scored runs against the Pakistanis in the tour match and would be a good addition to the side, although it might be a stretch to say that he would maintain the balance of the team because Zimbabwe's tail remains worryingly weak. The last four is effectively made up of a No 10 and three No 11s, meaning the batting ends with Lamb.

That potential change aside the hosts will retain the side who impressed in Harare last month. What was so encouraging in the Test against Bangladesh was the way Zimbabwe did not allow themselves to be overawed by the occasion, and generally played with a positive mindset. If they at least do the same in this Test then they could continue to win supporters even if the result doesn't come out in their favour.

Meanwhile, observers might get a quick glimpse of a familiar face. Up in the officials' room, David Boon will be making his debut as a match referee after completing his training during the recent Test series between England and India.

<b>Key Men</b><br><i>Zimbabwe:</i> The hosts don't bat very deep, so it's crucial that the top order take responsibility for putting the runs on the board. After a century in the last Test, <b>Hamilton Masakadza</b> should be looking to cash in on a batsman-friendly wicket.

<i>Pakistan:</i> Taking 20 wickets on a flat pitch is likely to be Pakistan's biggest challenge, and they'll be looking to <b>Saeed Ajmal</b>'s sorcery if there's some turn on offer. In particular his doosra could be a potent weapon against batsmen who don't have much experience of the delivery.

<b>Last Five Head-To-Head Results</b>

November 2002, Second Test: Pakistan won by 10 wickets in Bulawayo<br>November 2002, First Test: Pakistan won by 119 runs in Harare<br>December 1998, Third Test: Match abandoned in Faisalabad<br>December 1998, Second Test: Match drawn in Lahore<br>November 1998, First Test: Zimbabwe won by seven wickets in Peshawar

<b>Prediction</b><br>Zimbabwe will be looking to take this match as far as possible in terms of length but are their batsmen capable of hanging on for the draw? A spin-inspired victory for <b>Pakistan</b> appears more likely.

Online betting firm <a href='http://www.skybet.com/betting/cricket/c30.html' target='_blank' class='instorylink'><b>Sky Bet</b></a> has Pakistan as favourite in the betting for the first Test. Visit Sky Bet for the latest <a href='http://www.skybet.com/betting/cricket/c30.html' target='_blank' class='instorylink'><b>cricket betting</b></a>.

<b>Probable Teams</b><br><i>Zimbabwe:</i> Vusi Sibanda, Tino Mawoyo, Hamilton Masakadza, Brendan Taylor (capt), Tatenda Taibu (wk), Craig Ervine, Greg Lamb, Ray Price, Kyle Jarvis, Brian Vitori, Chris Mpofu

<i>Pakistan:</i> Taufeeq Umar, Mohammad Hafeez, Azhar Ali, Younis Khan, Misbah-ul-Haq (capt), Umar Akmal, Adnan Akmal (wk), Saeed Ajmal, Sohail Tanvir, Sohail Khan, Junaid Khan

<b>Dates:</b> 1-5 September<br><b>Morning session:</b> 10:00 – 12:00 (08:00 – 10:00 GMT)<br><b>Afternoon session:</b> 12:40- 14:40 (10:40- 12:40 GMT)<br><b>Evening session:</b> 15:00 – 17:00 (13:00 – 15:00 GMT)<br><b>On-field umpires:</b> Rod Tucker and Ian Gould<br><B>Third umpire:</B> Local appointment<BR><b>Match referee:</b> David Boon

<b>Tristan Holme</b>