Chibhabha special derails Afghanistan
Zimbabwe 226 (Chibhabha 53, Moor 52, Rashid Khan 3-43, Hamza 2-31) v Afghanistan 161 (Shahzad 45, Shahidi 31. Chibhabha 4-25, Cremer 2-38) by 65 runs
Scorecard and ball-by-ball details
Zimbabwe were defending 30 less than a total that was single-handedly chased down by Mohammad Shahzad last week. On Monday, Shahzad was left with the unenviable task of steering his team out of a proper top-order wobble if they had any chance of achieving the 227-run target to seal the series. But the pressure of a chase on a Sharjah deck that was superbly used as an ally by Graeme Cremer and Chamu Chibhabha told as Zimbabwe won by 65 runs to take the series into the deciding final ODI on Wednesday.
Normally known for his belligerence, Shahzad transformed himself into a slow accumulator, seemingly intent on batting himself into a position from where he could pull off a heist. Run-scoring wasn't easy, and Zimbabwe's fielders made the target look 20 runs greater than it was. Eventually, the frustration of being unable to unfurl the big hits consumed Shahzad as Chibhabha, who conjured a fighting half-century earlier in the piece, prised out the big fish for a 72-ball 45, to leave Afghanistan in tatters at 88 for 5.
Hashmatullah Shahidi held one end up, but Afghanistan's freefall left him with little to work with. He fell for 31 as the wheels came off the chase soon after. Crèmer's loopy legspin earned him two wickets, while Chibhabha had four scalps with his accurate seam-up. Afghanistan were bowled out for 161 in 45 overs as Zimbabwe earned a shot of redemption as the series was back on an even keel.
Afghanistan's batting approach upfront, at least in the series, has often bordered on the thin line between aggressive and over-aggressive. But this time around, they seemed intent on proving the doubters wrong by showing they possess a solid defensive game too. As a result, deliveries that would have otherwise been met with a fierce swing were either defended or left alone, and within the bat of an eyelid, they were behind the eight ball right from the start.
Nevill Madziva, who relies on angles and late swing, gave Zimbabwe their first breakthrough when he had Noor Ali Zadran nick one to Richmond Mutumbami. Five overs later, Asghar Stanikzai flicked a low full-toss to midwicket to leave Afghanistan in trouble at 13 for 2. The early losses seemed to affect Shahzad's shot-selection as he soon went into his shell.
The two-paced nature of the pitch, which accounted for Rashid Khan's wicket when a leading edge was well taken by a diving Hamilton Maskazda at point, induced more doubts in Shahzad's mind. But it wasn't yet the crisis it turned out to be later, for there was hope at least till Mohammad Nabi was around. But his wicket simply threw Afghanistan's innings off the wheels and they hurtled with every blow that came after, as Chibhabha's middle-order wreckage left the tail with too much to do.
The effervescence of Zimbabwe's efforts with the ball and on the field almost took the focus away from an insipid batting effort that resulted in their losing their last seven wickets for 56 runs. In two of the three ODIs so far in the series, Zimbabwe's half-hearted approach towards shot-making on sluggish pitches exposed their lower order much earlier than they would have liked. The end result was scores of 82 and 175.
On Monday, the lower order faced a challenge of a different kind, as the top-order batsmen, who got off to starts, fell to a succession of misguided strokes, resulting in Zimbabwe failing to cash in on the 92-run opening stand between Chibhabha and Peter Moor. After a slow start, Moor, who had tallied all of 86 runs in five previous ODI innings, found his hitting range and struck four sixes, all over deep midwicket off the spinners, to bring up a half-century.
But Rashid Khan, the 17-year old legspinner playing in only his sixth ODI, had the last laugh as he triggered Zimbabwe's collapse. He finished with 3 for 43, while Amir Hamza, the left-arm spinner used generally as an attacking option, did his bit by picking up two wickets.
What should have been a stroll suddenly turned into a struggle as one batsman after another walked in and walked out, even as Afghanistan's pacers, particularly Dawlat Zadran, proved there was more to their attack than just a plethora of slow bowlers capable of applying the squeeze. But the inability of the batsmen to rise to the party somewhat reduced the bowling effort to a footnote.
Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo