HARARE: Overshadowed by threats of a player strike over unpaid wages, Zimbabwe's two-test series against Pakistan is set to begin on Tuesday with the home team hit by serious financial problems and even more unsettled than usual.
Zimbabwe coach Andy Waller warned the player pay issue will likely spill over to the tests, making the southern African team's quest for a rare series win even harder.
After threatening to go on strike before the tour over match fees and then refusing to train on the eve of Saturday's third one-day international because of unpaid monthly salaries, Zimbabwe's players have now given their national body until Monday to make the outstanding payments.
New coach Waller sees the issue as a major distraction ahead of the opening test in Harare, even if it is solved at the last moment.
''Unfortunately I think it will be spilling into (the test series) because I don't think it's all been solved yet,'' Waller said.
''I'm not 100 per cent sure, but I'm under the impression that nothing is definite yet. There's no doubt about it, it's still on their minds.''
With its underdog opposition in such turmoil, Pakistan will have little excuse for a defeat and having lifted themselves to an ODI series win after surprisingly dropping the first game, the tourists will expect to continue winning, despite talking of caution.
''When we were here in 2011, they really gave us a tough time in the test match,'' Pakistan captain Misbah-ul-Haq said, ''and the way they're playing we should not take them lightly, because they are playing good cricket. We have to be really on top of our game.''
Zimbabwe is only two years on from its return to tests after a self-imposed six-year exile because of the country's failed cricket structure, but the problems that forced it to give up tests in 2005 already are back.
''I'm trying to do the best I can,'' Waller said. ''Unfortunately I have no control of the other issues that are going on. I've just got to try and get them (players) to push those problems aside as much as they can and focus on the cricket, which is really the only thing I can do, and just hope that they can try and be mentally strong to be able to handle those situations.
''It's very hard to say to the guys, 'please, let's try and focus on today and concentrate on cricket, and forget about what's happened.'''
Away from financial issues, Waller's worries also include the ability of a bowling attack depleted by the early retirement of fast bowler Kyle Jarvis, who chose English county cricket over his country because of the ongoing problems.
Legspinner Graeme Cremer is also absent against Pakistan's formidable batting line-up. ''The main concern I have at the moment is probably on the bowling side,'' Waller said.
''How are we going to get 20 wickets? I'm not saying our bowlers aren't good, but having lost someone like Jarvis who could bowl with a bit of pace and swung the ball and always gave the chance of picking up wickets, and losing someone like Cremer who's a quality legspin bowler.
That is one of my concerns at the moment. But I still believe that our bowlers can go out and do the job.''
It's not completely smooth sailing for Pakistan, which is sweating on the fitness of batsman Mohammad Hafeez, who suffered a slight muscle strain during the third ODI.
Misbah expected him to recover for the tests, though. Younis Khan has arrived to add batting experience and there's still the threat of spinners Saeed Ajmal and Abdur Rehman.
''(Spin) is very important because we've got two guys who have been performing really well for Pakistan, Abdur Rehman and Saeed Ajmal,'' Misbah said. ''They are something special for us, winning test matches for us, and we really bank on them.''
Zimbabwe's batting, at least, will be buoyed by the return of opener Tino Mawoyo from injury. With wicketkeeper Richmond Mutumbami also set to return, captain Brendan Taylor will be able to focus on his batting and captaining in more troubled times for Zimbabwe's cricket team.