Napier: Zimbabwe will approach their one-off Test against New Zealand from Thursday keenly aware that every international match they play strengthens or loosens its foothold in world cricket after a long and sometimes bitter exile.
The years that Zimbabwe spent on the sidelines of world cricket — a consequence of failing form and domestic political volatility — ended in August when they beat Bangladesh in a match that heralded their return to Test status.
Zimbabwe then strongly pressed New Zealand in a solitary Test in Bulawayo late last year, holding the upper hand until the final session when the young fast bowler Doug Bracewell bowled New Zealand to a 34-run win.
Zimbabwe will be playing their one-off Test match against New Zealand from Thursday.
That performance and a strong hit-out in its warm-up match — a three-dayer against a composite XI containing several New Zealand Test players — will send Zimbabwe into the Test at McLean Park confident of a respectable display.
Coach Alan Butcher said Zimbabwe believed it could match New Zealand after its recent experience at home.
"There was no doubt New Zealand were very worried up until tea time on that last day," he said. "I hope we can visibly get them as worried again in this Test.
"It's obviously going to be more difficult on their home patch but that's what I would hope for. If we do that, perhaps this time we will have more know-how to go on and win the game."
Wicketkeeper Tatenda Taibu, a relative veteran of 27 Tests, said Zimbabwe was eager to re-establish itself as one of Test cricket's earnest battlers.
"When one door closes another one opens," Taibu said. "Being away from Test cricket, the guys are really hungry to really do well in the games we do have. Because cricket evolves, there's no doubt we'll be a little behind.
"I'm sure the more we play, we will catch up with the rest of the countries, and get back to where we were with the Test game."
Zimbabwe also meets a New Zealand team in a period of transition. Its Test win over Australia in Hobart in December buoyed New Zealand's spirits, but the team that will face Zimbabwe will contain several changes from that side.
New Zealand needs a new wicketkeeper after Reece Young was dropped after a period of poor batting form and either BJ Watling, a specialist batsman, or Kruger van Vyk, an uncapped keeper, will fill that role.
Coach John Wright said he was "a fair way down the road" to deciding which would play — most likely Watling after his top-score of 84 in the New Zealand XI's first innings in the warm-up match at Gisborne.
"Kruger's made a lot of sacrifices to try to make it into the national team ... so what we've got is a lot of internal competition between two great men," Wright said. "You know that whoever ends up starting will bring an exciting spirit and attitude.
"You've got to weigh up whether you're happy with BJ doing the job or whether we give him more time and let Kruger have first opportunity."
Wright may attempt to strengthen New Zealand's sometimes fragile batting lineup by promoting Daniel Vettori from No. 8 to No. 6 in the order and incorporating a wicketkeeper such as Watling, who played six previous Tests as an opening batsman.
The New Zealand players have mostly been involved in a domestic Twenty20 competition since the Test series against Australia, but Wright is heartened that top-order batsmen Brendon McCullum, Martin Guptill and Dean Brownlie have been in solid form.
"Those three come in to give us some sort of opportunity to cash in on ball striking," Wright said. "In the end, it's the balance of working out how to play five-day cricket, which is, you know, hitting the right shots at the right balls."
New Zealand: Ross Taylor (captain), Trent Boult, Doug Bracewell, Dean Brownlie, Martin Guptill, Chris Martin, Brendon McCullum, Tim Southee, Daniel Vettori, Kruger van Wyk, B.J. Watling, Same Wells, Kane Williamson.
Zimbabwe: Brendan Taylor (captain), Regis Chakabva, Elton Chigumbura, Graeme Cremer, Kyle Jarvis, Hamilton Masakadza, Shingirai Masakadza, Stuart Matsikenyeri, Tinotenda Mawoyo, Keegan Meth, Forster Mutizwa, Raymond Price, Tatenda Taibu, Prosper Utseya, Brian Vitori, Malcolm Waller.