When a win is just not enough
The opening games in the seven-match one-day series between West Indies and Zimbabwe have turned out to be far closer affairs than most predicted. To their credit, the woefully inexperienced Zimbabwe side have battled all the way, but what has really been alarming is quite how poor West Indies have been.
Against opposition such as this young Zimbabwe side, it was expected that West Indies' batsmen would take every opportunity to fill their boots. Instead they have scratched around and looked anything but comfortable. In the first match, they did their best to throw away the match when set a paltry 152 to win; only the belated appearance of Brian Lara and his calming 40 not out ensured there was not an upset. On Sunday, they again failed to fire, and only a belligerent fifty from Ramnaresh Sarwan and some late-order biffing by Dwayne Smith enabled them to post anything half decent.
It is hard to know where the problem lies but clearly, confidence is at rock bottom. Chris Gayle, who a year ago would have eaten this Zimbabwe attack for breakfast, only showed brief glimpses of his usual belligerence. Shivnarine Chanderpaul, whose stance these days seems to open and close with the frequency of a revolving door, did not even show those glimpses.
And then there is Lara. For these two matches he batted down at No. 6, a position he had only occupied twice in his previous 259 ODIs. One has to assume the thinking was that against this kind of attack it was best to give Denesh Ramdin a chance to shine up the order. Not only did Ramdin fail to do so - twice undone by the impressive offspin of Prosper Utseya - but it also meant that in the normal course of things Lara would have to come in and hit rather than build an innings from higher up the order.
On Saturday, Lara had to bail his side out. It could be argued that had he been at No. 3 or 4, they would not have needed bailing out in the first place. On Sunday, the top order had spent so long prodding and poking that when he did finally reach the middle he had no time to settle, and perished to an unLaralike improvised paddle before he had got his eye in. What West Indies need here is to win, and win in style. To do that, they need Lara to fire and that means he has to resume his normal place in the order.
For their part, Zimbabwe have fielded superbly and their bowlers have also kept up the pressure. Ed Rainsford used the new ball well on both days, and the only worry is that he leaves the tour after the fourth ODI to take up a club commitment in England. However, his opening partner, Blessing Mahwire, showed he lacks the control to really trouble good batsmen, bowling too many no-balls and wides.
Utseya, who turned 21 earlier this month, showed he has a real cricketing brain and bowled with clever variations in speed and flight. It remains to be seen what happens when a batsman gets after him - Sarwan briefly did today - but he looks to have promise.
Zimbabwe's real weakness is in their batting. That is understandable, as they have lost too many frontline players in recent years and the lack of experience and match practice among what remains is obvious to see. Some of their techniques, especially against the ball leaving the batsman, are inadequate, and while they can survive, they struggle to score. In 100 overs this weekend, Zimbabwe's run-rate was barely over three an over. The exception to that is 19-year-old Justice Chibhabha, who showed some delightful touches and passed fifty in both matches while none of his colleagues made more than 26.
There are enough signs that Zimbabwe might have bottomed out, and if they can hold on to the current side then they could provide an upset or two when they meet Bangladesh in the dozen or so ODIs scheduled between the two later this year. If they could lure back some of talent that has been driven away, then it could only help the rebuilding process.
Sadly, the indication in the first two matches is that West Indies are still in freefall. They have five more games in this series to regain personal confidence and a clinical edge. If not, then the tour by India, which starts in three weeks, could be a hard slog.
Martin Williamson is managing editor of Cricinfo