Spinners, Dilshan humble Zimbabwe
"Frankly today we were rubbish," said Zimbabwe's new coach Alan Butcher. And he was right. It was a one-way street in Bulawayo. Only Hamilton Masakadza turned up for Zimbabwe. Sri Lanka attacked from every corner, with spin and seam, to strangle and harass the hosts who just about managed to get past 100. Only Masakadza managed to successfully combine aggressive intent with the required skill that the rain-reduced 26-over game demanded of the batsmen. It was Sri Lanka, led by Ajantha Mendis, who called all the shots and Tillakaratne Dilshan ensured they earned a bonus point and took the top spot with a breezy knock.
Mendis bamboozled with his mystery against a team he's had much success with - 18 wickets from six games before this. Suraj Randiv troubled with his accuracy and Jeevan Mendis, the debutant leg-spinning allrounder, picked up a couple of wickets. Not that the seamers didn't sparkle.
Nuwan Kulasekara turned in an asphyxiating spell with the new ball with figures that read 3-0-7-0 and Dilhara Fernando, as ever, extracted bounce from short of a length to produce an equally tight spell. And it was Fernando who started the demolition job by removing Brendon Taylor.
The nature of Taylor's dismissal set the tone for Zimbabwe today: He stumbled out to the leg side, almost like a tailender, to a short-of-length delivery and had a lame fatal poke at it. It highlighted the urge to attack that the reduced game demanded of the hosts, but also perfectly caught the confusion in the mind of the way to go about it.
Zimbabwe also faltered in their strategy. Why was Greg Lamb, a batsman with a strike rate of about 41, sent in at No.3 in a 26-over game? The pitch wasn't so bad that they needed to stitch one end up. Lamb crawled to a 19-ball 10 which was neither here nor there and only piled pressure on Masakadza.
Craig Ervine's struggles against spin further hurt Zimbabwe. He could only eke out three runs from 18 deliveries of spin from the combination of Ajantha Mendis and Randiv. He couldn't pick Ajantha Mendis' variations and couldn't break free against Randiv's accuracy. Ajantha Mendis swallowed both Lamb and Ervine and Randiv lured Charles Coventry to hole out to the deep. And more trouble lay around the corner for Zimbabwe as they lost Elton Chigumbura , inside-edging a short delivery from Jeevan Mendis on to his stumps.
Watching all the damage unfold was Masakadza. It was he who hit the first boundary with a disdainful pull in the fourth over against Fernando. It was he who hit the first six in an over where he threatened to turn things around for Zimbabwe. He went after Thissara Perera in the eighth over, thrashing him for a four past mid-off and unfurling an imperiously-pulled six to loot 17 runs. However, he too slowed down after that frenetic over. It took him a further 38 deliveries to hit his next boundary, the self-restraint no doubt caused by the alarming rate at which the wickets fell. In the end, he was the ninth wicket to fall when he top-edged a bouncer from Fernando and Zimbabwe soon crashed out for 118.
Zimbabwe needed a great start if they were to pull off an unlikely heist. However, Chris Mpofu went for 14 runs in the third over as Upul Tharanga pinged the point boundary for three fours and Sri Lanka seized all momentum. Though Tharanga was run out later, Tillakaratne Dilshan, who had played a watchful, but a good knock against India in the previous game, hastened the end with an aggressive innings. He lofted Prosper Utseya for a six and a four, slog-swept Lamb to the ropes and cut Chigumbura for more boundaries. The chase was over in a blink.
Sriram Veera is a staff writer at Cricinfo