Azhar ton seals first series win in two years
Pakistan 269 for 4 (Azhar 102, Sohail 52*) beat Zimbabwe 268 for 7 (Raza 100*, Chibhabha 99, Yasir 2-40) by 6 wickets
Scorecard and ball-by-ball details
Azhar Ali began his captaincy career with three straight defeats to Bangladesh, but it couldn't be put down to his batting. Now needing a win in each of the ODIs against Zimbabwe to maintain their ICC ranking, Azhar followed up a 79 in the first ODI with his second ODI hundred - both as captain - to seal only their third successful chase of 250 or more in the last four years. This was Pakistan's first series win in two years.
A target of 269 on such a flat pitch with an innocuous attack might look an underwhelming one, but Sikandar Raza with his unbeaten 100 and Chamu Chibhabha with 99 would have thought they had got Zimbabwe into competitive territory given Pakistan's chasing record. However, there was nothing in the pitch for the bowlers, nor any genius in the Zimbabwe attack to rise above the conditions. Azhar anchored the chase patiently, with support from almost every other batsman: all batsmen reached double figures, and Zimbabwe could never manage a double breakthrough.
Pakistan's chase began on an undesirable note: Mohammad Hafeez had injured himself in the field, thus breaking the opening partnership that added 170 in the first ODI. Sarfraz Ahmed joined Azhar at the top, and the two got off to a swift start. Azhar kept dropping the ball into the gaps, and Sarfaraz began to sweep the new-ball bowlers, a shot that consumed him with the score 46 in the ninth over.
Despite Mohammad Hafeez's fall at the score of 68, Azhar kept scoring at close to a run a ball, walking down the wicket to chip the ball every time he needed to score quick runs. A key moment came in the 23rd over when Chibhabha dropped him at short cover. Azhar had reached 53 off 54 already, but losing him with the score just 109 would have put Pakistan under severe pressure. Instead Zimbabwe had to wait close to 10 overs for their next wicket, with the same bowler Graeme Cremer producing a leading edge to get Asad Shafiq at short cover. By then the two had added 86 for the third wicket, and Pakistan now needed just 116 off 18.2 overs.
It is a walk in the park in modern cricket, but with Pakistan you never know. Against this Zimbabwe attack, though, they continued batting without panic. If there were any nerves, some excellent chips over extra cover by Haris Sohail settled them. Sohail's urgency allowed Azhar the inconspicuousness you love when you are nearing a hundred. By the time Azhar fell - a soft square cut straight down backward point's lap, which should annoy him - the equation had come down to 60 required off 59.
Out come Shoaib Malik - once upon a time a cool finisher - to join Sohail, who Pakistan hope will become a cool finisher, to make sure the hosts cruised through without any dramas. It was an un-Pakistani chase in that it was neither a quick burst nor nervous. It was calm and achieved just what was required.
The bowling effort of their fast bowlers, though, would have left them unsatisfied. Albeit on a flat pitch, this was the fourth straight time against a Pakistan attack that Zimbabwe had added at least 56 for the opening wicket. It was the spinners who inflicted major damage. Yasir Shah got two including the dangerous Sean Williams, Shoaib Malik accounted for Chibhabha and along with Mohammad Hafeez, the three spinners conceded only 86 runs in 19 overs for four wickets.
Chibhabha, making his comeback after missing the first ODI, could have done with a more urgent opening partner. As he struck at a run a ball, Vusi Sibanda got stuck, scoring only 13 off 47 in an 83-run opening stand. Damningly for the Pakistan quicks it took a spinner to break the stand.
Chibhabha, on the other end, didn't need to become desperate. Pakistan kept feeding his cut, and he moved sweetly along even though Yasir took two big wickets in his figures of 10-0-40-2. Before Williams lobbed one back at Yasir, stand-in captain Hamilton Masakadza fell caught by the keeper on the reverse-sweep although there wasn't conclusive evidence to support umpire Shozab Raza's decision.
The umpire would be involved in another dubious call, in the 35th over, with Chibhabha looking for a single to bring up a maiden century and then set up for the Powerplay. From round the wicket Malik pitched outside leg, with the ball turning further down, and with the limited technology available pictures weren't clear with regards to any contact with the bat or glove. Chibhabha's reaction, though, and the painstaking walk back suggested this should have been called a wide.
With Richmond Mutumbani scoring a Sibanda-esque 7 off 26, Zimbabwe were in real danger of being kept to a tame total. Except that Raza found good touch against the team from the country of his birth. He made room, peppered the cover boundary time and again, including scooping a near-yorker over short third man for four. Despite Raza's hundred off 84 balls, Zimbabwe enjoyed little support from the other end, and took only 112 off the last 15 overs. It proved to be too little in the end.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo