England make their experience count
It was always asking a bit too much for Zimbabwe to repeat their performance over Australia against an England side fresh from a highly competitive series against India, and with their limited-overs game in unusually good order. However, the 50-run margin of defeat hardly reflects the efforts that Zimbabwe put in. More than once they had England worried.
Whatever Zimbabwe's fate now in this tournament, and their net run-rate is such that an England win over Australia is virtually their only hope of progression, these past two days have shown their cricket in a better light than at any time in recent years. It doesn't, for one minute, make a difference to the situation back home and the multitude of problems the country has, but while the team continues to produce international-quality performances, the spirits cannot help but be lifted.
Twenty20 cricket has performed many roles in its short life. It's brought crowds back to domestic cricket and rejuvenated the careers of players who seemed to be fading away. Now it may be providing Zimbabwe with a route to respectability. In these two games their players of limited skill have been able to compete with some of the world's best, a situation that is beyond them in one-day internationals and, for all the positive vibes coming out of Zimbabwe Cricket, would be hopelessly out of reach at Test level.
Zimbabwe agreed to an extension of their suspension from Tests after initially hoping to return this year. Robin Brown, the coach, says their performances here could help their quest to resume the longest format. "I don't know when we will get Test status back, but if we continuing playing this way I'm sure it won't be long," he said, but in fact that prospect wouldn't do their game any good at all.
It is folly to attempt to draw comparisons between Zimbabwe's efforts against England and Australia, and their snowball-in-hell-like prospects of competing in the five-day game. But Twenty20, which isn't yet played domestically in Zimbabwe but on this evidence should be, offers them a way of remaining competitive and, importantly, allowing the players to feel that something is being achieved.
A number of players have enhanced their reputations in the last two matches, notably Elton Chigumbura and Brendan Taylor, while their fielding remained energetic throughout and at times outstanding. When a side struggles to match opponents with bat and ball, they should always have their fielding to fall back on, and their displays at Newlands have harked back to the mid-1990s when Zimbabwe cricket was briefly a force on the world stage.
During the warm-up games Chigumbura was shunted down the bowling order, but his wobbly medium-pace was ideally suited to the conditions at Newlands - it's important, even in the short game, to have wicket-taking options with the new ball. Seven wickets in seven overs is impressive going by any standards, and when he removed Darren Maddy and Luke Wright with consecutive deliveries, there were a few flashbacks to Wednesday night.
Taylor, who loves to play his shots, is well suited to this format but brought an added maturity to his game, especially in the innings against Australia. And while he was flaying England's quick bowlers around the ground there were more than a few concerns for Paul Collingwood before Dimitri Mascarenhas calmed the nerves.
Whereas Australia had no-one with strong form to fall back on, England knew all their players had been in recent action and so long as a couple turned in decent performances they would avoid following the world champions' path. For the first time in seven attempts, Kevin Pietersen exploded in a Twenty20 International. On three occasions he reverse-swept Keith Dabengwa through the off side during his 79 from 37 balls, and added 100 in nine overs with Collingwood to give England a total out of Zimbabwe's reach.
The run-chase fell apart as England fell back on their domestic experience, and took the pace off the ball in the manner that had made Zimbabwe so effective. The margin of victory means England need only to avoid a thrashing against Australia to move into the second round, but a much greater incentive will drive them on. "There's a possibility of us humiliating Australia," said Pietersen. "It will get the dressing room buzzing and it's an opportunity of a lifetime, but I don't want to make this about us against Australia." Of course he doesn't.
Andrew McGlashan is a staff writer on Cricinfo