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Confident Zimbabwe aim to continue upward

Cricket goes on, as perhaps it should. Pakistan, over the last year, and Zimbabwe, for some time, have probably realised the significance of that sentiment more than most nations. Both countries, bedeviled by any variety of issues, might even empathise over the turbulence of what is happening within their borders and the coverage of it from afar, which they might complain is often hyped, often poorly-informed, often misperceived.

Which is why this tour is less low-key, and more important for both, than it may immediately appear. Pakistan won't mind trialing some of their bench strength through the four-day game and the ODI series. Neither will they mind, with Australia nervously looking on, an incident-free visit.

Zimbabwe, meanwhile, have all manner of incentives, not least clocking up further mileage on the road back to Test status. They take on a strong-ish Patron's XI led by Shahid Afridi in a four-day game from Monday and Prosper Utseya, the touring captain, is confident his side can put on a good show.

"We have played some good cricket in recent months and we have done it against big teams," he told reporters in Karachi. "We have also played a few four-day games and that has helped prepare us. If we can beat Australia, we can beat anyone. We want to continue doing that in Pakistan."

Indeed, Zimbabwe have taken an upward turn in recent months, and without too much attention being roused. That Twenty20 World Championship win over Australia was noted, but since then they have quietly beaten the West Indies in an ODI as well as won all three four-day games against a South African Composite XI in South Africa.

Robin Brown, who was appointed coach last August and is a one-time international, knows just how those results have come: "A lot of hard work. We've improved enormously not only technically, but psychologically and we are not afraid coming here. We want to win a few games."

To that end, the return of several vital, experienced players such as Ray Price and Tatenda Taibu has helped. It might not immediately make up for the loss of the many who made Zimbabwe so competitive earlier this decade, but Brown points out that the current side are not quite the newbies Pakistan might expect.

"We have lost a few over the years, but we are young in age, not experience," he said. "Many of our players have now played between 50-60 ODIs, so we have experience. We played four-day games in South Africa with good results and the more cricket we play, the more experience we will gain. We're not too far away from getting back to where we were."

Still, whatever the strength of the Pakistan sides, they will provide an altogether different and unique challenge. "Most sides are good at home, but good cricketers adapt to different conditions," Brown said. "We have a few spinners so our bowling will be up to strength. Our batting will have to adapt but we've had lots of practice and preparation and we're keen to play."

That eagerness to play will see them through some tough days for sure, but so will the attitude of Utseya, the only international captain younger than Shoaib Malik. Not yet 23, the captaincy, he admitted, had been hard at times and little wonder. He didn't say too much else, but what he did was honest and fearless. When asked the inevitable question about handling the pace of Shoaib Akhtar, he said simply, "We don't fear anyone."

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