Harare: Freshly re-installed as the top-ranked Test team in the world, South Africa appear disinclined to take any mercy on their struggling neighbours Zimbabwe when the two teams engage in a rare Test starting on Saturday.
Given Zimbabwe`s lowly ranking and the myriad problems infecting its cricket, the Proteas could have been forgiven for resting key players in the one-off Test but have instead stuck with the 15-man squad that recently clinched a series victory in Sri Lanka. That means that a Zimbabwe side who have not played a Test in almost a year are set to come up against the best and most feared bowler in the world in Dale Steyn, as well as top-ranked batsman AB de Villiers and top-ranked all-rounder Vernon Philander.
"Whether you`re playing Australia or Zimbabwe, the pressure is always there. We are here to play our best brand of cricket," South Africa captain Hashim Amla promised on arrival in Harare.
"My firm belief is that you don`t take anything for granted. I`ve come here to play Test cricket as intensely as we played even in Sri Lanka." The expectation, therefore, is that the Proteas will inflict a similar defeat to the ones Zimbabwe suffered back in 2005 -- the last time that the sides encountered each other in Test cricket.
Not only did Zimbabwe lose both Tests by an innings, but the first match ended inside two days and the second lasted just three. Hamilton Masakadza, Elton Chigumbura and Brendan Taylor are the three current Zimbabwe players who will have some harsh memories from that match, while AB de Villiers is the only South African to have spanned the nine-year gap.
This clash finds the hosts at a particularly low ebb following their one-day series draw at home to Afghanistan last month, but captain Taylor insists they are excited by the challenge. "It`s really special to have the best side in the world coming to play you on your home turf," Taylor said.
"There`s no better opportunity to gauge yourself as a cricketer than against the best side in the world. That`s an opportunity we are all relishing.
While South Africa`s XI is largely settled, with only minor question marks over the places of opening batsman Alviro Petersen and spinner Imran Tahir, the composition of Zimbabwe`s side is up in the air.
The selectors have named a mammoth 25-man training squad for both the Test and the three-match ODI series that follows, and only four or five players will be confident about getting the nod for Saturday morning. One batsman with a good chance of playing is Mark Vermeulen, who infamously burned down Zimbabwe`s cricket academy back in 2006.
The 35-year-old subsequently faced arson charges but was acquitted by a court on psychiatric grounds, and as the in-form batsman in Zimbabwe`s squad he could make a memorable return to Test cricket after an absence of more than a decade.