Even though the result of the first Test between New Zealand and Zimbabwe was decided before Sunday, captains Kane Williamson and Graeme Cremer did not expect the match to end without a fight. Williamson already saw signs of it on the first day; Cremer was preparing to be in the thick of it on the fourth.
The Zimbabwe captain had already bowled 53 overs, including a marathon spell of 26 on the second day, batted for half an hour to drag the game out a little longer at the end of the third but he knew the fourth day would bring it's greatest challenge: to ensure that even though Zimbabwe were going to lose, they would lose with some respectability.
"We spoke about it after the first innings. We thought we were a little bit soft upfront but being in the field for so long, we realised what Test cricket is about," Cremer said. "We watched them (New Zealand) bat. They didn't play any shots out of frustration or anger and we wanted to do the same."
Despite the frustration of being so far behind the game and the anger that his men had not executed themselves as well as they could have, Cremer did not let that bleed into his batting. For five minutes short of three hours, he stoically saw off a New Zealand attack that was pushing for a quick result. He accepted the body blows that included being hit in the ribs, on the shoulder and on the arm he broke just before the World T20, which still has a plate in it. He let his team-mate Sean Williams, who had spent the past two days in the grip of a flu that has spread to more than half the Zimbabwean squad, have his moment in the sun.
"I knew batting with Sean, he scored quite freely anyway, so I knew I had to play the supporting role. He was hitting a boundary an over and we didn't need to score quicker than that. I just needed to stay there," Cremer said. "He was feeling quite ill but credit to him. He was a little bit loose when he got out to bat and got a bit lucky but there he dominated. The player that he is, he can do that on wickets like this. He has got good hands and good eyes."
Williams' century, the fastest by a Zimbabwean in Tests and decorated with 21 fours that included cover drives, sweeps and a ramp shot, will overshadow Cremer's silent resistance at the other end, Craig Ervine's first fifty, Donald Tiripano's unbeaten 49 and Prince Masvaure's impressive 42 on debut, and it should. But collectively, all those performances speak to a Zimbabwean batting line-up that is not as fragile as it looked when twin collapses saw it fall to 72 for 8 in the first innings and a top-order meltdown reduced them to 17 for 4 in the second.
As the game progressed, the batsmen's long-format muscle memory kicked in. At the same time, the New Zealand attack could not sustain the level of aggression that had seen them surge into the advantage earlier. Neil Wagner could not keep banging in the short ball, the hint of movement Tim Southee found was eventually lost and Trent Boult reached a top speed of 132kph but kept his average at 128.2kph. Williamson had expected all of that to happen.
"The way we bowled in the first innings was a huge part of how we got ahead. When you are tying to bowl that again, it's going to be extremely challenging," he said. "Sometimes, on surfaces like this one, you need to try and be a little bit creative. You want to try and make things hostile and difficult but you also need to be patent and build pressure. It was a very good effort to get 20 wickets. We knew it was going to be tough. We had to fight very hard to pick up the wickets that we did."
Williamson had to use creative field placings, his spinners and a lot of patience while he waited for Wagner to find reverse-swing as the ball reached the end of it's lifetime. He understood that things would happen slower than they had in the first innings but trusted that they would eventually happen. "Neil has showed us he can be pretty creative with the older ball which is useful on surfaces that are not offering swing," Williamson said.
Ross Taylor was preferred as the Man of the Match over Wagner but it was clear that even Williamson thought his left-armer was the man who changed the game. "That first innings put us ahead of the game. It was extremely important to have some hostile bowling on a surface that didn't offer much," he said.
In the end, Zimbabwe lost the real fight on the first morning but they will take heart from knowing they picked themselves out to compete in the smaller battles that came later on.