Opportunities slip through Zimbabwe's fingers
It has been a cliché among weaker teams that though they could not compete with the heavyweights in the batting or bowling, at least their effort in the field did not lack. Few will expect these sides to fire in direct hits from the edge of the circle on a regular basis, or to make too many stunning stops in the covers or point, but as long as mistakes are omitted the minnows can retain some credibility; at least they competed as equals in one aspect.
There was once a time when this was true for Zimbabwe too - in the late '90s and early 2000s. Occasionally spectacular, but routinely tidy, the team made a name for itself for being committed and disciplined, and this somehow gave weight to the notion that they were a team on the rise. If they were getting one discipline right, perhaps the others would soon follow.
But as Zimbabwe showed in the World Twenty20 opener against Sri Lanka, those days are gone, and that good work undone. Brendan Taylor had urged his charges to "give it everything" before taking the field, and although the sins of the bowlers and batsmen against one of the tournament favourites are forgivable, their errors in the field cast aspersions on Zimbabwe's diligence.
Malcolm Waller had the roughest time in the field. Perhaps the first chance that came his way, running back from mid-on to chase down a top-edged pull, was a difficult one, but the catch he grassed at deep midwicket three overs later would have been expected to be held at a club cricket match. Shortly before that, a run-out chance had been missed, though it did require a direct hit.
Then there were the myriad misfields to allow the batsmen to steal extra runs. Chris Mpofu loped around from short fine leg to intercept a gentle sweep shot in the ninth over, but let the ball slip through his fingers to allow a single. A few overs later, he did well to get a hand onto a powerful straight drive to kill some of the shot's momentum, but the job still proved beyond Brian Vitori, who at long-on misfielded the slowing ball, and palmed it out of Prosper Utseya's grasp and into the boundary rope. At other times, wild throws allowed more sneaky runs and and a shy at the stumps with no chance of running out the batsman, and no one backing up, surrendered four overthrows.
"We felt 150-160 on a big outfield would be about par and if we fielded well we would've kept Sri Lanka to that much," Taylor said after the match. "We let ourselves down on the field, leaked too many runs and dropped catches."
In Zimbabwe's last international tour early in the year, the fielding had at times been even worse. In New Zealand, they dropped chances not even worthy of being called catching practice. In one ODI, four simple catches were spilt inside three overs. At some point, the poor tone in the field must affect the other disciplines too, and against the quality of opposition Zimbabwe faced in Hambantota, the batting and bowling needs all the help it can get.
"In the past we have been a very good fielding side, but we are aware of the fact that we have let our standards drop, and that has been an issue for a while," Taylor said. "It's certainly something that has been talked about and looked at, and we are working on improving ourselves there and getting back to that level we know we can be."
Zimbabwe now know they must move mountains to avoid a first-round exit. Even if they somehow beat South Africa on Thursday night, their net run-rate following the 82-run first-up loss is likely to be the poorest among the three teams. The Super Eights might be a pipe dream, but Zimbabwe will know that every time they step out to play, their credibility is on trial. A clean performance in the field in their remaining match will reassure fans Zimbabwe deserve their place in the tournament, and might one day make a genuine lunge at the tournament's second phase.
Andrew Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's correspondent in Sri Lanka