The World Cup Qualifier in March was supposed to be the start of a fruitful home season for Zimbabwe. With a tri-series against Pakistan and Australia followed by five ODIs against Pakistan lined up, this was set to be a bumper summer. A side playing close to full-strength in a bid to qualify for 2019 meant the signs were promising. The crisis of 2004 seemed far off.
What a difference, then, three months - and more precisely, three runs make. Zimbabwe's loss to UAE by that margin in their final qualifying game, and consequently missing a World Cup spot has led to an implosion of sorts. The finances are in doldrums, the fans are looking away and several top players are revolting against unpaid salaries dating back to last year.
Graeme Cremer, who led them at the qualifiers, will not be a part of the T20I tri-series. Neither will Sikandar Raza, playing in the Global T20 League in Canada, Brendan Taylor, Sean Williams and Craig Ervine. Hamilton Masakadza is set to lead a team stripped of much of their star quality as a result. That he was named captain on match-eve is a measure of their lack of preparedness.
There is also a new head coach in Lalchand Rajput, who has previously enjoyed a relatively successful stint with Afghanistan and a few first-class sides in India. Can he inspire a team that can expect no mercy from a full-strength Pakistan side that has won 19 of their last 22 T20Is?
They are the No. 1-ranked side in the world, playing at a time when the disparity in mood in the respective camps is continents apart. What was to be the highlight of the Zimbabwean cricketing year is now a chore to be seen through, an impending mauling to be dreaded.
Pakistan's openers are fearless, the middle order ruthless, the pace bowlers excellent, and the spinners canny. They've gone around the world undoing far better sides than this Zimbabwe unit, and are likely to see the game as a warm-up to their clashes against Australia, their overwhelmingly likely opponents in the final on July 8.
Zimbabwe WLLLL (last five completed matches, most recent first)
In the spotlight
It has been nearly two years since Elton Chigumbura played international cricket, but with his recall, Zimbabwe have brought back one of their more recognisable faces. A mainstay in Zimbabwean cricket since his debut in 2004, Chigumbura is perhaps more suited to T20Is than any of his team-mates. Chigumbura has seen as many ups and down in Zimbabwean cricket as just about anyone, and if anyone is likely to be up for a rebuilding job, it is the 32-year-old allrounder.
Fakhar Zaman is supposed to be the ideal T20I cricketer, but strangely enough, he hasn't quite managed a devastating knock in the format befitting his reputation. His match-winning century in the Champions Trophy final against India showed his comfort against the best opposition, but in T20Is, he has never gone past 50, with a somewhat unremarkable average of 23 from 16 innings. Even a strike rate of 135 - by no means unimpressive - doesn't quite scale the heights you would expect of a player who looks like he could smash every ball for six. Against a weakened Zimbabwe, he has the ideal opportunity to right all of that.
Zimbabwe's line-up is anybody's guess, but one positive for the hosts is their fast bowling is largely unaffected by the player boycott, with Chris Mpofu, Blessing Muzarbani and Kyle Jarvis all likely to start.
Zimbabwe (possible): 1 Brian Chari, 2 Chamu Chibhabha, 3 Tarisai Musakanda, 4 Hamilton Masakadza, 5 Elton Chigumbura, 6 Peter Moor (wk), 7 Malcolm Waller, 8 Tendai Chisoro, 9 Kyle Jarvis, 10 Blessing Muzarabani, 11 Chris Mpofu
While it will be hard to say how experimental Pakistan get, they might want to give their best players a run to start the tour.
Pakistan (possible): 1 Fakhar Zaman, 2 Mohammad Hafeez, 3 Hussain Talat, 4 Sarfraz Ahmed (capt, wk), 5 Asif Ali, 6 Shoaib Malik, 7 Shadab Khan, 8 Faheem Ashraf, 9 Hasan Ali, 10 Mohammad Amir, 11 Usman Khan
It's the middle of winter in Zimbabwe, with conditions expected to be cool and dry. The surface can offer something early on, but this is a late start. Hence, the side winning the toss may not mind batting first and setting up the game.
Stats and trivia
Zimbabwe have played only two T20Is in the past two years, both against Afghanistan in February this year. They lost both games.
Pakistan's longest-serving player Shoaib Malik averages 66.72 in his last 24 T20I innings. In more than half of these - 13 - he has finished unbeaten.