By Nick Said
PAARL, South Africa (Reuters) – Coach Heath Streak knows all too well the challenges Zimbabwe cricket faces, but believes the surprise return of experienced players and the shedding of an underdog mentality has been behind the team’s more competitive recent performances.
Streak, a formidable all-rounder in his playing days, is preparing the side for the inaugural four-day test against South Africa starting in Port Elizabeth on Dec. 26.
He has been leading the side since October, 2016 and in that time has engineered a return for the country’s top batsman Brendan Taylor and their primary seamer, Kyle Jarvis, who had previously committed their futures to County Cricket in England.
“It was not easy (to persuade them to return), everybody has seen the political and economic challenges Zimbabwe has,” Streak said. “But I suppose we can be a bit more excited now we have a change of president and things are looking a little bit more hopeful.
“For us as cricketers, we realise how unifying and important cricket is as a sport to our country. We have seen how multicultural and multiracial our team is, and that plays an important role in rebuilding the new Zimbabwe.
“We are really excited and want to make people back home proud of how we perform in this next test.”
Zimbabwe have gradually improved during Streak’s first year in charge, with their last test a home draw against West Indies in which they batted for 144 overs in their second innings to save the game.
They also edged Sri Lanka 3-2 in an away one-day international series in July that showed the potential of the side in the shorter formats.
“It’s well documented how little test cricket we have played, but I think for us it is less about the type of cricket and more about just playing at international level,” the 43-year-old said.
“Whether we are playing ODIs or tests, it is the gaps between fixtures that is the biggest challenge for us. Our domestic level isn’t high, so for us to step up, that’s the challenge.
“I think for the first time in a long time we have got a pretty well-balanced team in terms of what we have from the seam and spin departments. We also bat pretty deep and we have got some exciting guys in the squad.”
Streak added he has been working hard on his side to play without fear and not go into games scared of heavy defeats.
“The main thing is instilling belief within the players, I think shaking off that underdog mentality that we have and also playing to win, not to just compete and try not to embarrass ourselves,” he said.
“The series in Sri Lanka was really a watershed for us, more mentally than anything else.
“We have also identified our fielding as an area we can be as good at or better than the rest of the world. We are out to play winning cricket. We would rather lose trying to play a winning brand than just compete.”
(Reporting By Nick Said; editing by Sudipto Ganguly)