One of cricket's most over-used adages is that shorter formats reduce the quality gap between teams, and though it may not always be true, Zimbabwe are hoping it will be apply to them when they take on South Africa in the four-day Test starting on Boxing Day. Though elite cricketers, including two of South Africa's own, Faf du Plessis and Dean Elgar, have largely turned their noses up at the idea of shorter Test matches, Graeme Cremer believes it could give his team, ranked No. 10, a greater chance to compete with their opponents, ranked No. 2.
"I think it's a good thing, especially when the two teams aren't ranked that close together," Cremer said at Zimbabwe's arrival press conference in Paarl on Tuesday. "The game will move that much quicker because it's only four days. It will be good to watch and good for the crowd."
Cremer expects the "bigger" teams to aim to bat once and bat quickly. "What a lot of the so-called bigger teams will do is bat the other team right out of the game and they can bat as long as they want, knowing they've got the bowlers to bowl a team out twice," he said. "The bigger teams will have to probably score a bit quicker and give the lesser team a lot more opportunity to get wickets and the game will move quite quickly."
But Zimbabwe's coach Heath Streak thinks that approach could also create an opening for the "smaller" team to work its way back into the game. "It's much harder to bat a team out because in doing so you may make it easier for them to save the Test," Streak said.
Zimbabwe have recent experience of saving a game. They drew the second Test against West Indies, in a series they lost 1-0, and showed their ability to compete. Before that, they came close to upsetting Sri Lanka in an epic Test match in Colombo.
Now Streak wants his team to take that one step further and not settle for anything less than winning.
"It's about shaking off the underdog mentality and playing to win, not to compete and to not embarrass ourselves," Streak said. "Our series in Sri Lanka was a watershed moment for us, more mentally than anything else. We are out to play winning cricket and we'd rather lose trying to play a winning brand than to just compete. We'll have our challenges, especially in the longer format because we don't play that much, but this team is going places."
An obvious challenge is the lack of game time for Zimbabwe, who play significantly fewer matches than the other Test teams. Streak admitted they would welcome any matches, in any format, just to get better. "It's less about the type of cricket and more about playing at international level, whether we are playing ODIs or Tests. It's the gaps in between the international fixtures that are the biggest challenge for us. Our domestic level of cricket isn't high so for us to step up, that's the challenge."
However, Zimbabwe could be set to play even less. Earlier this year, ZC's new MD Faisal Hasnain admitted the country would seek to host fewer Tests in future, once the new Test league comes into place, because they are financially unviable. Instead, they would concentrate on shorter formats at home and hope to play Tests overseas, as they are doing now in South Africa. And that will mean taking fixtures in whatever format the hosts offer, as is the case now.
The Boxing Day Test won't just be the first four-day Test since 1973, but will also be a day-night game, which Zimbabwe are unused to. With no floodlights at either Harare Sports Club or Queens in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe only play day-night games abroad, and now they have to do it with a pink ball.
Many teams, especially batsmen, have had problems with the pink ball at twilight and Cremer's early assessment is that Zimbabwe will experience the same. "We've had two sessions under lights with the pink ball. It was good to see how it reacts," he said. "At that twilight time, a little bit more seems to happen with the ball off the wicket. We'll be careful of that. It will probably swing."
Zimbabwe are yet to decide on their team combination but will use the upcoming three-day warm-up match, which starts on Wednesday, to decide on the best combination. "We're very inexperienced at this," Cremer said. "The warm-up game will give us a good idea of how to go forward in the Test match."
They will also use it to see how they fare against a returning Dale Steyn, who is expected to make his Test comeback this summer. Steyn has not played for South Africa since last November, when he broke a bone in his shoulder in Perth, but has been named in the Test squad and his final availability will be confirmed on the basis of how he comes through the practice match. Rather than fear what is effectively an audition for Steyn, Cremer said Zimbabwe's line-up was looking forward to it.
"It is very exciting," Cremer said. "Dale brings a lot to cricket in general. He is a good guy and he is one of the better bowlers going around. It will be good to have him back, not only just for this Test match but going forward in his career. He is great to watch and we are excited to see him in the three-day game and hopefully in the Test."