SA to steamroll neighbours?

Cape Town - Those of cynical mind may be more tempted to ask how many days the once-off Test between Zimbabwe and South Africa will last, rather than speculate on who will win the looming southern African “derby”.

These foes meet at five-day level for the first time since 2004/05 at Harare Sports Club from Saturday (10:00 SA time), with the Proteas - back as the top-ranked global power for the time being - understandably tipped for a thumping win.

Enthusiasts of both sides will be just a little nervous over whether the Test turns out to be a proper contest, given that the ninth-placed Zimbabweans have had their strife in recent years and been “rebuilding” - perhaps to put it politely.

The majority of their current crop of Test players, for whom opportunities at that level have been sporadic anyway, are unfamiliar with the rigours of playing against the traditional modern superpowers of South Africa, Australia, India and England.

Perhaps the only comfort they have is that in their most recent mini-series, at home in September 2013, they came from behind to eke out a creditable 1-1 outcome against fickle Pakistan, who have subsequently broken into the top three on the ICC rankings.

After being comprehensively beaten in the first Test (both were played in Harare), Zimbabwe bowled out Misbah-ul-Haq’s outfit for 239 in pursuit of a victory target of 264 in the second, to register a landmark - for them - triumph by 24 runs as young seamer Tendai Chatara bagged a timely five-wicket haul.

Before that series, Zimbabwe had been held 1-1 by Bangladesh, and lost an away series 2-0 to West Indies in 2012/13.

The South African Test squad, heartened by their 1-0 success in Sri Lanka very recently, leave for Harare on Wednesday and have already fired off a signal that they plan no special mercy by naming an unchanged party.

You can understand the keenness of various, staple Proteas players to want to excel against the minnows, because otherwise the Test roster is pretty lean for South Africa until it picks up in gravitas again much later next year.

That could be ominous for the hosts, who would be silly not to prepare a flat track with the intention - at least upfront - of it “going the five days” if at all possible.

This is not the hottest time of year in Harare, although there has still been abundant warm sunshine and faster men traditionally have to bend their backs a bit for success in the wickets column there.

The Proteas last played a Test series in Zimbabwe as far back as 2001/02 when they won easily in Harare and then drew in Bulawayo, but then their opponents still boasted some hardened customers like the Flower brothers, Heath Streak and Alistair Campbell.

Nowadays (admittedly a situation not helped by the country playing Tests so seldom) you will struggle to find Zimbabweans threatening spots within the top 20 of either the batting or bowling world rankings - Brendan Taylor stands at 29th with the blade at present and the best-placed bowlers are Kyle Jarvis (44th) and Chatara (51st).

Zimbabwe did last encounter the Proteas on our shores in 2004/05 - AB de Villiers will travel to Harare as lone SA survivor from that two-Test series - but were disposed of by an innings at Newlands and Centurion respectively.

In the Cape Town encounter, the Zimbabweans suffered the indignity of being routed for 54 in a pitiful 31 overs after electing to take first strike.

How their inevitably green-looking line-up will cope this time with Dale Steyn and company is really anybody’s guess ...

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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