Napier: Zimbabwe gets set to host New Zealand in a one-off Test match and while eyes may be on matches with higher profiles in Abhu Dhabi and Adelaide, Napier will provide the testing ground for character of both teams.
Two higher profile series leaves this one-off Test to play out in the shadows but it promises to be a test of character for both sides. New Zealand and Zimbabwe played one of the Tests of the year in 2010, in Bulawayo, which ended in a thrilling 34-run win for the visitors. Zimbabwe have not played any Test cricket since then and will still be buoyed by how close they came but New Zealand have a bigger cloud to float on - victory over Australia in Hobart.
The Zimbabwe tour is a curtain raiser to South Africa's arrival in New Zealand later in the summer and the hosts will want to use what is effectively a warm-up tour to fine-tune their plans. They have question marks over who the best wicketkeeper in the country is, how many allrounders to play and which of their four quick bowlers will edge ahead if they have to pick between them. One Test may not be enough to clarify all of these issues but it will go some way to guiding New Zealand for the immediate future.
Zimbabwe have a far more daunting mission to accomplish. For the first time since making their Test comeback in August last year, they will play away from the comfort of Harare or Bulawayo. While still finding their feet in the longest form of the game, they will also have to quickly assess and understand the ground beneath it as they adapt to foreign conditions. Their captain, Brendan Taylor, has already spent time in New Zealand playing in the HRV Cup and his insights will be valuable.
Under Alan Butcher, Zimbabwe have formed a close-knit and increasingly confident unit but this match will test those bonds and other aspects of their game. The result matters less for them than the manner in which it is achieved and how they perform in this match will provide a good yardstick for measuring Zimbabwe's progress.
New Zealand WLWDL (most recent first)
Zimbabwe LLW (Zimbabwe's results only reflect matches they have played since making their Test comeback in August 2010)
Players to watch …
After just three Test matches in which he has scored three fifties, Dean Brownlie has already earned a promotion up the order. He will bat at No. 5 and will act as the fifth seamer in an attack that will contain four quicks and the spotlight will fall on whether he can convert a start. Like most of their squad, Zimbabwe's new-ball pair of Kyle Jarvis and Brian Vitori will experience Test cricket on foreign spoil for the first time. On a pitch in Harare that offered only early assistance for the quicks, the pair took 10 wickets between them and will be able to push themselves on a surface offering more assistance.
On a seamer-friendly pitch, New Zealand are set to play four quicks with Daniel Vettori coming in at No. 6. That means Brownlie will be promoted a place and Kane Williamson gets an opportunity at No. 3 in Jesse Ryder's absence. The most debated topic in New Zealand over the past week is the wicketkeeper's spot which will be taken by BJ Watling, over Kruger van Wyk. Sam Wells, the allrounder who was included in the New Zealand squad at the eleventh hour, is reportedly unlikely to play.
New Zealand: (probable) 1 Martin Guptill, 2 Brendon McCullum, 3 Kane Williamson, 4 Ross Taylor (capt), 5 Dean Brownlie, 6 Daniel Vettori, 7 BJ Watling (wk), 8 Doug Bracewell, 9 Tim Southee, 10 Trent Boult, 11 Chris Martin
Zimbabwe are without two of their most experienced players. Vusi Sibanda was left out of the touring party after being declared ineligible for the national team following a grade cricket stint and Chris Mpofu suffered a lower back injury. Hamilton Masakadza partnered Tino Mawoyo at the top in the tour match, making room for Regis Chakabva at No. 3. The middle order will then be opened up to accommodate both Malcolm Waller and Elton Chigumbura. Shingi Masakadza is line to make his debut, taking the third seamer's spot after Meth was struck with a ball during training and is on crutches. Legspinner Graeme Cremer will also play after veteran Ray Price was ruled out with a groin injury.
Zimbabwe: (probable) 1 Tino Mawoyo, 2 Hamilton Masakadza, 3 Regis Chakabva, 4 Brendan Taylor (capt), 5 Tatenda Taibu, 6 Malcolm Waller, 7 Elton Chigumbura, 8 Graeme Cremer, 9 Shingi Masakadza, 10 Kyle Jarvis, 11 Brian Vitori
Pitch and Conditions
Talk in New Zealand is that the hosts have ordered a green top as they look to pick from where they left off in Hobart. Although Napier has traditionally been a batsmen's pitch, with the last match between New Zealand and Pakistan playing out to a high-scoring draw in 2009. A wetter summer than normal should provide for bowler-friendly conditions. Napier is expected to be mild and sunny with the only possibility of rain forecast for the second afternoon.