A tale of the unexpected
As expected, Zimbabwe are out of the Champions Trophy after the first round. Unexpectedly, they gave Sri Lanka - whose pre-tournament warm-up included a 5-0 one-day whitewash of South Africa - a run for their money today in pursuit of what was thought to be a meagre total.
Zimbabwe got off to a better start than usual. At 41 for 1 in the 11th over, they had seen off a testing opening spell largely unscathed. But things went steadily downhill from there, and at 85 for 6, yet another predictable drubbing seemed to be on the cards.
In came Elton Chigumbura, who is quickly becoming something of a one-day star for Zimbabwe, to salvage some pride. First, he put on 35 with Tinashe Panyangara to take Zimbabwe past three figures, then he added an eye-catching 64 from only 57 balls for the eighth wicket in partnership with Prosper Utseya.
There was a maturity, and a willingness to innovate, in their batting that suggested that these young Zimbabweans are fast learners. Utseya in particular was more than happy to depart from the norm in pursuit of quick runs, scoring his 31 at better than a run a ball.
Chigumbura, who thrashed 77 against Australia in their one-day series earlier this year, added another half-century to give the innings some credibility. He eventually fell for 57, playing an ugly hoick across the line, but that was practically the only false shot in a fine innings, and Zimbabwe's 191 was a lot more than they had looked likely to make halfway through their innings.
Sri Lanka's fielding, and in particular their catching, was exemplary all day. Upul Chandana held onto a ball that was hit like a rocket by Brendan Taylor towards point, and Kumar Sangakkara had a very good day behind the stumps. Nuwan Zoysa found rich pickings in South Africa's brittle batting order last month, and was virtually unplayable today. His third wicket in a ten-over spell that cost only 19 runs (and included five extras) was his 100th in one-day internationals. After a stop-start beginning to his career it appears he is beginning to cement a solid place in the Sri Lankan side.
There is a sameness about Zimbabwe's young bowling attack, with Tinashe Panyangara, Douglas Hondo, Edward Rainsford and Chigumbura all sending down their innocuous-looking yet deceptive seamers in the late 70- to 80mph range. But then again, the same could be said of Sri Lanka, and their bowling effort, even without Muttiah Muralitharan, was the undoing of South Africa. Panyangara and Rainsford have shown signs that they can crank up the speedometer at times, and both could mature into very effective fast-medium bowlers.
The impression given by the "new" team's performances to date - which was summed up by today's match - is that Zimbabwe's bowling has not been as badly affected by the mass exodus of players, capped off by the walkout by the so-called rebels, as the batting has.
The latest news in the players' dispute with the ZCU is that Charles Coventry, Gavin Ewing and Barney Rogers, who impressed against Bangladesh, have all been offered contracts by the board. If one or two of the more experienced batsmen - perhaps the two Craigs, Wishart and Evans - could be enticed back to the fold, the batting would be bolstered, and instead of edging towards 200, the team could aim closer to 250.
Some very promising bowlers, in particular Rainsford and Chigumbura, have been unearthed. If they can compete at international level while still in their teens, in five or six years Zimbabwe will have a bowling attack that could be a force to be reckoned with, particularly in one-dayers.
Sri Lanka are on the top of their one-day game at the moment, and despite the early loss of wickets there was never a hint of panic in their batting. On their current form, it shouldn't have been left to Chandana and Tillakaratne Dilshan to hit the winning runs, though they had no problem in doing so.
Zimbabwe lost both of their Champions Trophy games by some way, but they have achieved something from this trip, in showing the world that they are taking the first steps towards become competitive again. A slightly limp Sri Lankan batting display will be a worry to them, and a pick-me-up for England, as the two teams prepare to slug it out for a place in the semi-finals.
Liam Brickhill is editorial assistant of Wisden Cricinfo.