April 7, 2003

Sri Lanka v Zimbabwe: An assessment

A bit of enthusiasm can do marvellous things! Kenya proved it at the World Cup, and now Zimbabwe, slowly regaining theirs, caused a major upset at Sharjah by beating Sri Lanka handsomely. It was nice for me to be proved wrong for once!

It is not often that rewards are gained so quickly. But Zimbabwe, as captain Heath Streak said after the match, decided that they were underdogs who had nothing to lose, so they might as well go out and play good cricket.

It must be admitted straight away, though, that Sri Lanka played a lot of poor cricket. Their talented top order, one after the other, threw their wickets away unnecessarily, starting with their captain Sanath Jayasuriya, who dragged the second ball of the match on to his stumps with the modern and technically faulted diagonal bat, offspring of the one-day game.

Bad balls were on several occasions met with bad shots, and wickets resulted. But this may still not have happened had the Zimbabwe bowling not on the whole been disciplined and the catching been brilliant. Despite losing the toss for the ninth time in a row at Sharjah, Zimbabwe adopted a positive approach and it paid off.

Two overthrows for four did not help Zimbabwe's cause, but apart from that they did little wrong in the field. Dion Ebrahim may not be a one-day batsman yet, whatever the selectors think, but he is certainly a fielder for any kind of match. He broke a vital partnership with a flying catch, just as Sri Lanka were looking set to build a good total, and not long afterwards Grant Flower took a superb running catch on the boundary to dismiss the in-form Sangakkara.

Streak as usual was the best of the bowlers, keeping the pressure on with his accuracy. Andy Blignaut was as enigmatic as ever, bowling some real rubbish on occasions but also many fine deliveries, and both took three wickets. If Blignaut can add a little more consistency without losing his wicket-taking balls, he will be a regular match-winner even if he doesn't score a run.

Streak also used different bowling tactics this time. Long opening spells from him hadn't worked so far in the tournament, so he took himself off quickly and returned later with overs in hand and consequently less pressure to do something quickly or Zimbabwe have lost. He also rotated his other bowlers skilfully and his moves paid off.

No fewer than eight Sri Lankan batsmen reached double figures, but the highest individual score was a mere 31. Nobody got his head down with determination and played a big innings, and this suggests over-confidence of the kind that also contributed to their defeat against Kenya in the World Cup.

With a target of less than 200, we wondered whether Zimbabwe would choke, as has happened in the past, or tell themselves eagerly, "We can win this." Fortunately it was the latter, but they had a fight on their hands.

Craig Wishart and Doug Marillier began positively and were getting nicely on top of the bowling when Wishart once again, having laid the foundation of his innings, got out, this time for 14. He did have an excuse in that it was a remarkable ball that seamed back sharply, as very few did, and hit his off stump, but the statistics will show another innings that began well and finished weakly. He must be feeling some sort of pressure now, but the fact that he almost always does make a start is a help. If he was out in single figures every time, he really would have cause to worry, but at least he does take the shine off the new ball.

The main battle, as expected, was against Muttiah Muralitharan. If many of the other Sri Lankans seemed to be taking their jobs too lightly, Murali clearly gave all he had. Our batsmen were often in trouble against him, but kept their heads.

They did so better perhaps than the umpires, who the television showed wrongly gave Marillier out caught close in, off the pad not the bat, and the lbw decision against Ebrahim was dubious. The dismissal of Marillier, the form batsman on the tournament, in particular came at a vital time and was reminiscent of Andy Flower's lbw dismissal, off the edge, the last time the teams met, in the recent World Cup. But this time Zimbabwe did not fold in response.

Grant Flower was largely responsible for that. He took on the mantle of Andy, holding the innings together, encouraging his partners and steering Zimbabwe home. Hopefully it may be the start of the greatest part of his career.

It is more than a year since Zimbabwe last beat a senior Test-playing team, and 13 defeats by those teams have followed in that time. It was not realistic, despite the positive talk of some, to expect Zimbabwe without Andy Flower to do better than Zimbabwe with him. Yet they have done, and won a fine victory in conditions that suited Sri Lanka better than themselves.

Now they face Pakistan in the final on Thursday. Their previous record in finals of triangular tournaments against senior teams has not been good. In 1998/99, our best season in international cricket, we twice beat Sri Lanka convincingly in Sharjah to face India in the final. They lost humiliatingly by ten wickets. The only other such occasion was in England in 2000, when we overwhelmed the weak West Indians but lost to six wickets in the final to the home side, although with typical Zimbabwean luck we lost the toss and were put in to bat in poor batting conditions.

So - on Thursday, will we fight or will we choke? Again, realistically victory, even against a young inexperienced Pakistani team, seems too much to hope for, but we can hope that our guys will keep their nerve and fight Pakistan to the last ditch. Discipline and enthusiasm in all departments of the game are required, and some much overdue good luck would help - luck with the toss and luck with the umpiring. It could be a good indication of the immediate future of Zimbabwe cricket.