Pool B: Zimbabwe face mission impossible at World Cup

Shingirai Masakadza of Zimbabwe bowls during game two of the One Day International series between New Zealand and Zimbabwe at Cobham Oval on February 6, 2012 in Whangarei, New Zealand. (Getty)

If they are to reach the World Cup quarter-finals, Zimbabwe will need to beat Ireland and the UAE, the non-Test nations in Pool B, and find a way to defeat at least one of India, South Africa, Pakistan and the West Indies.

It shapes as a tough but not impossible task and the Zimbabweans will have been encouraged by the dismal form of the West Indies during their series in South Africa.

For a small cricketing country, Zimbabwe have occasionally punched above their weight at World Cups, most notably when they defeated Australia in their first appearance in the tournament in 1983 when they were still an associate nation.

They reached the Super Six stage in both 1999 and 2003 before an administrative upheaval which resulted in many leading players quitting the game, eventually resulting in Zimbabwe withdrawing from Test cricket for six years.

Without again reaching the heights that were achieved when the likes of Andy Flower and Heath Streak were playing, Zimbabwe have shown they are capable of causing the occasional upset against leading teams, such as when they beat Australia in Harare last August.

Realistically they will rely on a handful of proven players such as Hamilton Masakadza, Brendan Taylor, Sean Williams and captain Elton Chigumbura, while Solomon Mire is regarded as a promising all-rounder.

Provided Masakadza and Taylor are in form, Zimbabwe are capable of posting reasonable totals.

The bowling lacks major penetrative power but Tinashe Panyangara and Tendai Chatara lead a steady bowling attack in which left-arm spinner Williams could play an important role. Zimbabwe are usually a good fielding team.

Recent form is not encouraging.

Although Zimbabwe beat Australia in one of two matches and performed respectably against South Africa in a triangular tournament in Harare, they then underwent a disastrous tour of Bangladesh, losing all three Test matches and five one-day internationals.

In the aftermath of the Bangladesh debacle, coach Stephen Mangongo was replaced by Dav Whatmore, the much-travelled Australian, and six players who did not go to Bangladesh were brought into the World Cup squad.

Whatmore was coach of Sri Lanka when they won the World Cup in 1996 and was at the helm when Bangladesh had their most successful World Cup campaign in 2007, eliminating India at the group stage and defeating South Africa in the Super Eights.

Unlike most of the other teams, Zimbabwe have not played any one-day internationals during the build-up period to the World Cup - they were last in action in Bangladesh on December 1.

Their preparation consisted of domestic cricket, an A series against Canada involving five of the players, and a training camp in Dubai.

The lack of international game time means that Zimbabwe's warm-up games against New Zealand and Sri Lanka will be important.

In a recent interview, Whatmore said he was impressed with the determination of the players to "turn things around".

It will be a tall order.

Factfile:

Squad:
Elton Chigumbura (capt), Regis Chakabva, Tendai Chatara, Chamu Chibhabha, Craig Ervine, Tafadzwa Kamungozi, Hamilton Masakadza, Stuart Matsikenyeri, Solomon Mire, Tawanda Mupariwa, Tinashe Panyangara, Sikandar Raza, Brendan Taylor, Prosper Utseya, Sean Williams
Coach: Dav Whatmore

Fixtures - Pool B

Feb 15: South Africa, Hamilton
Feb 19: United Arab Emirates, Nelson
Feb 24: West Indies, Canberra
March 1: Pakistan, Brisbane
March 7: Ireland, Hobart
March 14: India, Auckland

World Cup record:

1983: Group stage
1987: Group stage
1992: Group stage
1996: Group stage
1999: Super Six stage
2003: Super Six stage
2007: Group stage
2011: Group stage

Key player:

Hamilton Masakadza was 11 days short of his 18th birthday when he made a century on Test debut for Zimbabwe. His one-day debut followed soon afterwards.

Now, at age 31, he is about to play in a World Cup for the first time. Studies, form and injuries have kept him out of three global showpieces.

For some time it seemed Masakadza might never fulfil his early promise but in recent years he has been one of Zimbabwe's most reliable batsmen.

As an opener, he will play a key role for a team that is prone to batting collapses.

His career one-day international average of 28.29 is not especially impressive but in the calendar year of 2014 he averaged 35.46 and had a respectable strike rate of just over 77.

His tally included half-centuries against both Australia and South Africa.

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