Irish joy at a tie as Zimbabwe choke
Zimbabwe 221 (Matsikenyeri 73*, Sibanda 67) tied with Ireland 221 for 9 (Bray 115*)
Zimbabwe had seemed to be cruising when on 92 for 1 chasing 222; within 45 minutes they were teetering on 133 for 5. But Stuart Matsikenyeri and Brendan Taylor, with plenty of time available to them, steadied the ship and guided Zimbabwe falteringly towards the finishing line. As Ireland started to look sloppy in the field, there appeared to be only one winner.
Then the wheels really came off. Taylor was run-out in desperately unlucky circumstances at the non-striker's end after a fortuitous deflection off the bowler's wrist. That did not seem crucial at the time, but it was the turning point. When Gary Brent fell leg-before with ten needed, the jitters really set in among a very inexperienced side.
Matsikenyeri was the difference between the teams but he was not on strike - he faced only 15 of the last 30 balls - as the penultimate over started with nine still required. Kevin O'Brien, in only his second over of the innings, had Prosper Utseya caught off a full toss with his first ball, and then Christopher Mpofu was stranded at the wrong end off the last.
Matsikenyeri took five off the first three balls of the last over, bowled by Andrew White. Rainsford chipped a single off the fourth, leaving Zimbabwe needing three from two. Matsikenyeri then top edged and an airbourne Trent Johnston at short third man couldn't quite cling on to the ball, and then his shy at the bowler's end was thwarted by some unsubtle but effective blocking by Rainsford who threw himself in the path of the throw.
With the scores tied, Matsikenyeri had to get something on the ball but he played and missed, and while the attempt to stump him failed - he never left his ground - Rainsford, who had charged towards his colleague, was left stranded. Zimbabwe had lost four wickets for nine in 15 balls in one of the most sensational World Cup chokes.
Zimbabwe had been in trouble twice earlier. They struggled early on when a battling 67 from Vusi Sibanda bailed them out. Terry Duffin and Chamu Chibhabha both came and went without ever looking remotely in touch - Duffin dropped behind the wicket twice in four balls before finally being caught off the fifth.
Sibanda kept the scoreboard ticking along with some well-struck drives, but he lacked any support. Sean Williams came and went after a most bizarre cameo, batting like a man who wanted to be showered and back in his hotel within the hour. He threw the bat at everything and almost inevitably and immediately holed out. Two balls later Zimbabwe could have been in deeper trouble when Matsikenyeri was left stranded when sent back by Sibanda, but Kyle McCallan failed to gather Kevin O'Brien's throw with Matsikenyeri flailing in no-man's land. It was a crucial miss.
Sibanda's excellent innings ended in unfortunate circumstances when he stepped back on his stumps as he looked to punch the ball into the covers, sparking delirious celebrations among the small but hugely vocal Irish contingent - which included two of the unlikeliest Leprechauns you will ever see. For five overs it could have gone either way, but Matsikenyeri and Taylor dug deep and appeared to have weathered the storm.
After the heart-stopping drama of the final overs, it was easy to forget that Bray's unbeaten 115, which earned him the Man-of-the-Match, had bailed Ireland out after their top order had also come apart at the seams. Bray, who batted right through the innings, was the only batsman who came to terms with Zimbabwe's wibbly-wobbly seam attack which at one stage threatened to bowl out Ireland for under a hundred.
Bray, who sounds more Wagga Wagga than Wicklow, was a virtual bystander as Ireland's top order came and went, perishing to inauspicious shots against bowlers who lacked pace but not nagging accuracy. All Ireland's top five are left handers, and they were unable to cope with balls angled across them.
They were a wicket down inside the first over when William Porterfield nicked Chris Mpofu, and although the loquacious Taylor spilt the chance, Sibanda dived across from second slip to snatch the rebound. Eoin Morgan, highly touted as being one who might follow Ed Joyce onto bigger things, survived a few alarms before edging to first slip. Mpofu bowled a super first spell and a lamentable second one at the death.
The innocuous-looking Elton Chigumbura then ripped through a paper-thin middle order. Bray, who smacked some sumptuous cover drives and two off-side sixes, needed someone to stay with him. O'Brien began to look like he would do that until he fell to a limp jab to give Taylor a second catch. At 89 for 5 an early finish was in store.
But Bray, who smacked some sumptuous cover drives and two off-side sixes, finally found support from White and Johnston, and as the scoreboard ticked over, Zimbabwe's fielding lost its shape. Chigumbura's Chaplinesque drop at deep square leg will take some beating in this competition, but he was not alone - Rainsford, the victim on that occasion, spilled a chance the next over.
Bray's hundred, which was delayed by a brief rain break, came up with a slashing cover drive and he and the swishing Dave Langford-Smith made Zimbabwe pay in the last few overs. It provided the platform to send the Leprechauns into seventh heaven, but Zimbabwe, who have had so little to cheer in recent years, will be left wondering quite how they blew it.
Martin Williamson is managing editor of Cricinfo