Indian team relaxed their grip
It was surprising that, with one hand apparently firmly on their first overseas Test series victory since 1986, India should relax their grip and allow Zimbabwe to scrape home to level the series in the Second Test match.
Well though Zimbabwe played at the Harare Sports Club, the result was perhaps due more to India's failures with the bat than any other factor. Both Test matches had in common the fact that the team winning the toss wasted that advantage by batting badly and eventually losing the match. In Bulawayo it was Zimbabwe; in Harare it was India.
India's 237 on the first day of the Harare Test was a poor effort which reflected on the lack of application of their batsmen, most of whom fell to soft dismissals. They fought back with three quick Zimbabwean wickets before the close.
The first turning point of the game came when Grant Flower dug in and shared fighting partnerships with the all-rounders in the team, earning Zimbabwe what was really no more than a useful lead of 78 on first innings. The pitch was sound for batting, even if the ball did not come on to the bat as well as the players would have liked, and with India's batting power it was quite possible that in the second innings they would be able to set a target that was beyond Zimbabwe's reach.
The Zimbabwean team is still not as confident with the bat as it should be. The Flower brothers and Heath Streak have shown they can handle pressure, but the rest, for the most part, have too many failures under pressure behind them or were untested in that kind of situation. A total of 63 all out when chasing 99 against West Indies last year, under admittedly more difficult circumstances, is an example of what can still happen all too easily under pressure. I said at the time that if Zimbabwe failed to bowl out India for less than 200 in the second innings, they could be in trouble.
One over from the end of the fourth day, Zimbabwe were indeed heading for trouble. India were 197 for three in their second innings. The second new ball was available for just one over before the close, and Zimbabwe took it. This was the second turning point of the match. Andy Blignaut had Rahul Dravid caught at the wicket, and they followed it up in the first half-hour of the fourth day with four more wickets for just 10 runs.
Zimbabwe were set 157 to win, in theory not a difficult target under the circumstances. But, with Zimbabwe's past record, it was not a foregone conclusion, and it was indeed to prove a tense struggle. The final turning point of the game was the innings of Stuart Carlisle.
Carlisle has no great record in Test cricket, with an average in the twenties and, before this innings, only four fifties to his credit, the highest of which was 58. He often stabilized an innings at number three with a solid twenty or thirty, before getting out just as he was looking well set. But the Zimbabwean players and selectors know him as a man with a big heart, one who is dedicated to his game and a wonderful trier.
On this day Carlisle got his reward with what must, under the circumstances, go down as one of the most vital innings ever played for Zimbabwe in a Test match. With Andy Flower suffering a finger injury, the team as a whole must have suffered a psychological setback in chasing their target. But Carlisle was the man who put his hand up, with an innings of superb temperament and judgement. He played scarcely a false shot in seeing his team home with a new Test best of 62 not out. Single-minded determination was the hallmark of his innings, evident in every ball he faced. It is to be hoped that this innings will give him the confidence to go on to greater things and higher scores in future.
There was much good bowling from both sides. Zimbabwe had to struggle for runs throughout the match against the Indian pace attack of Javagal Srinath - below his best in the first innings but magnificent in the second - Ajit Agarkar, who was most unlucky, and Ashish Nehra, perhaps the find of the tour for India. Then there was Harbhajan Singh, who was never mastered by the Zimbabweans, but neither did they let him intimidate them.
Zimbabwe, for their part, also benefited from fine bowling by Heath Streak, Travis Friend, on his debut, and Andy Blignaut, who won the Man of the Match award and was often superb. They bowled a tight offstump line, perhaps a little too defensively at times, but it kept the Indian batsmen in check during that crucial second innings when they looked ready to take the game out of Zimbabwe's reach.
Both sides fielded superbly. Zimbabwe have always been known for this virtue, but India often matched them. The Indian close catching in the series has frequently been brilliant, with Shiv Sunder Das, Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman all worthy of special mention.
It has been a good series, and it was a pity the Zimbabwe Cricket Union were unwilling to play a three-match series, for financial reasons, so there could be a decider. The series draw will no doubt increase India's desire to win the triangular tournament, starting on Saturday, so as to salvage a rare triumph from an overseas tour.