Murali draws level with Walsh as Sri Lanka take charge
Sri Lanka 67 for 0 trail Zimbabwe 199 (Muralitharan 6-45) by 132 runs
Sri Lanka predictably took the upper hand on the first day at Harare, putting the new-look Zimbabwe in on a beautiful batting pitch, and bowling them out for 199 shortly after tea. Sri Lanka's openers then gave them a firm foundation, putting on 67 without being separated in 16 overs by the close.
Douglas Hondo almost caused a shock with the very first ball of Sri Lanka's reply, as Marvan Atapattu played it down defensively, and saw the ball bounce down and back over his stumps. Then, in Tinashe Panyangara's second over Atapattu survived a very difficult slip catch, but after that he and Sanath Jayasuriya accumulated steadily and without risk at four an over until the close.
The main virtue of Zimbabwe's bowling is its accuracy, and there is no doubt that with maturity there will be some fairly dangerous Test bowlers in the current crop. Threatening they may not yet be, but they are for the most part more accurate than some of their predecessors who are currently at odds with the administrators. With developed skills and greater experience, they will do well.
Earlier Muttiah Muralitharan's 6 for 45, as Zimbabwe were dismissed for 199, gave him a share of Courtney Walsh's Test record of 519 wickets. Few would bet against him annexing the record in the second innings. Today Zimbabwe's inexperienced batsmen looked out of their depth, but there were a number of minor surprises and exceptions.
The first was the determination of the new opening pair, Stuart Matsikenyeri - a veteran of three Test matches but opening the innings for the first time - and the debutant Brendan Taylor, who put on 30 in 69 minutes. They survived the new ball, seeing off a superb opening spell by Chaminda Vaas, who swung the ball almost from the start and bowled nine overs for only eight runs, without taking a wicket.
Nuwan Zoysa was less impressive, and in the eighth over Taylor launched him through the covers to the boundary, a favourite shot. He was much more confident after that, but at 19 drove firmly back down the pitch for Farveez Maharoof - the one Sri Lankan debutant to Zimbabwe's five - to hold a sharp return catch (30 for 1).
This could in the circumstances be termed a good start, but then in quick succession Zoysa removed Dion Ebrahim for 1 and Matsikenyeri for 10, to a brilliant one-handed catch far to his right at second slip by Mahela Jayawardene. This reduced Zimbabwe to 35 for 3, which became 57 for 4 on the point of lunch as the inexperienced Elton Chigumbura was caught off a cramped hook for 14, also off Zoysa.
Shortly after the break, Murali began to weave his familiar spell over the other batsmen, winning lbw decisions against the scoreless Alester Maregwede, beaten by that controversial doosra, and Mluleki Nkala (2), sweeping in desperation as he tried to fathom the bowler's wiles. But Tatenda Taibu, who today became the youngest Test captain of them all - he's still a week short of his 21st birthday - was still there, once again rising to the occasion and showing tremendous fighting spirit despite having one of the weakest of all Test sides under his command. And Prosper Utseya, fresh from a career-best knock in the previous match for Zimbabwe A against the Sri Lankans, joined him to make sure it was not all one-way traffic.
Cautious at first, but later selecting his strokes well and taking advantage of any loose balls, Taibu battled his way to 40 before sportingly walking after a bat-pad catch off Murali. He looked like the boy stood on the burning deck at one stage, as one partner after another floundered and fell, until Utseya joined him. Utseya, who's just 19, has often sold his batting skills short, but he has a fine calm temperament, and played Murali as well as anybody, even his captain. They put on 33 for the sixth wicket, the highest stand of the innings at that stage, before Taibu went (118 for 7). Utseya stayed, despite the third-ball dismissal of Blessing Mahwire, and hit the last ball of the session, from Murali, high over long-on for six.
After tea, though, Utseya threw away the chance of a debut fifty with a swing across the line against Murali that cost him his middle stump after he'd made 45. At 149 for 9 the innings seemed as good as over - but then came Sri Lanka's biggest and most unexpected setback.
Hondo was joined by Panyangara, the last man, who had a dismal time with the bat in the recent one-day series. Immediately Panyangara showed his real talent, though, pulling Zoysa for four and shortly afterwards executing a perfect slog-sweep to hoist Murali, who was then one short of Walsh's record, for six. With 32 not out he dominated the lively last-wicket stand, which realised exactly 50 before Murali finally produced a quicker off-stump yorker to bowl Hondo for 19.
Murali's record-equalling spell was the achievement of the day for Sri Lanka, although the more successful Zimbabwe batsmen were not afraid to hit him hard when the opportunity arose. Vaas's later spells were much less threatening than his first one, while Zoysa, less dangerous than Vaas before lunch, finished up with three wickets.
So far this match is following a predictable course and, barring something unusual, the Zimbabweans can expect a long, hard day in the field tomorrow, probably with more to come on Saturday. But they will keep trying.