Zimbabwe's captain Chamu Chibhabha (R) throws the ball during a practice session at the Rawalpindi Cricket Stadium ahead of their three-match one-day series. AFP/Aamir Qureshi
RAWALPINDI - Pakistan take a further step out of the wilderness as international cricket hosts when they welcome Zimbabwe for their first ODI in a year on Friday, with England and South Africa both lining up tours.
The three one-day internationals, when Babar Azam will debut as ODI captain, are also Pakistan's first in the new World Cup Super League, the qualification process for the 50-over World Cup in 2023.
The rehabilitation of Pakistan, largely shunned by foreign sides after a deadly attack on Sri Lanka's team bus in 2009, has accelerated in recent months, partly as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
After Pakistan toured England and agreed to visit South Africa -- both hard-hit by Covid-19 -- the two heavyweights were moved to show their gratitude by studying reciprocal trips. Neither has visited in more than a decade.
Zimbabwe, West Indies and Bangladesh have all toured Pakistan since the attack, and last year Sri Lanka ended their decade-long absence with a limited-overs tour.
Those games turned out to be Pakistan's last ODIs for a year and they return in Rawalpindi under new captain Azam, also the T20 skipper, hoping to take their first step towards the 2023 World Cup in India.
In the 13-team World Cup Super League, seven sides plus hosts India will qualify for the World Cup. All teams will play four home and four away series, with each match worth 10 points.
Pakistan's three ODIs and three T20s against Zimbabwe will be played behind closed doors in Rawalpindi, and with both teams in a bio-secure "bubble". All players have tested negative for the coronavirus.
Apart from Zimbabwe's off-field problems -- the International Cricket Council suspended them for three months last year over political interference -- the team are on an eight-match losing streak in ODIs.
They have lost 2-0 to the Netherlands, 3-0 against Ireland and 3-0 to Bangladesh since their last ODI victory, at home against UAE in April 2019.
"It's very crucial for us to play really well," said new skipper Chamu Chibhabha, who has captained Zimbabwe in just one match earlier this year.
"Super League games are very important because we have to qualify for the World Cup, which we missed in 2019."