Spinners, Taylor trounce Sri Lanka by eight wickets
Who'd a thunk it? Zimbabwe finished the league stage at the top of the table, winning comprehensively all their 50-over matches, and losing the one that was truncated to 26. Even in the first quarter of the final league match, a dead rubber, Sri Lanka seemed to have run away with the game, having scored 122 for no loss thanks largely to a rollicking start from Tillakaratne Dilshan. Zimbabwe's army of spinners - accurate, aggressive, aided by good fielding - then came into action, and Sri Lanka managed only 114 in the rest of the piece. The chase hardly ever looked difficult, and once again Brendan Taylor was at the centre of it, scoring only his second ODI hundred and overhauling his personal best.
Zimbabwe refused to experiment and bat first in a tournament where all matches have been won by sides chasing, but they played around with the ball, persisting with the medium-pacers in the earlier stages of the innings. Resting one of their four spinners, they got the seamers to bowl 13 out of the first 15 overs, and Dilshan smacked them around to give Sri Lanka their best start of the tournament. Out of form coming into the tri-series, Dilshan continued his improvement with every innings, and was free-flowing in his 66-ball 78.
With Greg Lamb and Andy Blignaut out with minor niggles, the first 13 overs from the medium-pacers went for 89 runs. Dilshan got 54 of those - eight fours and a six in them. With the introduction of Ray Price in the 12th over came some control, but by that time Upul Tharanga had opened up too, having hit three fours in a Chamu Chibhabha over, the 10th of the innings. Dilshan was not going to settle for a boring middle-over accumulation either: he hit another four and six before falling prey to his own aggression in the 21st over.
Prosper Utseya, who got Dilshan stumped, followed up with Dinesh Chandimal's wicket in the 25th over, and Zimbabwe had started clawing back. Soon Hamilton Masakadza came to bowl for the first time in the tournament. Soon he was showing off his vest with "just married" written on it, having accepted an easy return catch off his third ball. Three wickets had gone for 33 runs, and Sri Lanka were forced into consolidation, a spell during which Tharanga reached his fifty, but also a spell during which Zimbabwe kept the field up and didn't allow easy singles.
Tharanga eventually played a shot of frustration, getting too close to a Graeme Cremer delivery and holing out to long-off. Jeevan Mendis looked to innovate, but pulled one to midwicket off Cremer. Thilan Samaraweera ran off a misfield, and Sri Lanka had lost another set of three wickets for 18 runs.
The match was now entering the crucial phase, the batting Powerplay, with Sri Lanka six down for 217 after 44 overs. Thissara Perera and Lahiru Thirimanne, the last recognised pair, had batted themselves in and were looking to undo Zimbabwe's hard work. In the first over of the Powerplay, though, Mpofu removed them both. Perera missed a straight delivery and Thirimanne chipped to cover-point. More special celebrations came out, the rocking-baby this time, for Tatenda Taibu who recently had a second son.
Masakadza didn't give his newly wed much more to cheer about. After his first failure in the tournament, though, Taylor got a good helping hand from Chibhabha, who put behind an ordinary show with the ball and a slow, edgy start. With not much swing available, Thilan Thushara and Dilhara Fernando tried to test the openers with short deliveries. It worked to begin with: Masakadza gloved one down the leg side in the fifth over, and Zimbabwe had scored only 16 in the first six. However, chasing a modest total, they could afford to give the bowlers a few overs and wait for the loose deliveries.
Sure enough, the loose deliveries started arriving. Immediately after Chibhabha top-edged Thushara for four in the seventh over, five wides followed. In the next over, Fernando over-pitched, and was off-driven by Taylor. In the ninth over, Thushara over-pitched on the pads, and Chibhabha flicked him over fine leg for six.
With literally risk-free cricket, Zimbabwe had reached 42 in nine overs. With the introduction of Thissara Perera, though, the batsmen started taking calculated risks. His two overs went for five boundaries, four of them in the air, and with 80 runs on the board after 15 overs, Zimbabwe could afford to milk the bowling. The next 17 overs got Zimbabwe just 72 runs, but the period didn't draw any panic. During the spell both the batsmen reached their fifties, and Chibhabha's mixed day was sure to give Zimbabwe a selection headache before the final.
Even after Chibhabha's dismissal, Taylor made sure Zimbabwe stayed ahead of the rate, without taking undue risks. There was the odd late-cut past short third man, there was the odd long hop pulled over midwicket, and lots of ones and twos. Coolly, Taylor and Taibu finished off their first win over Sri Lanka in seven years, with 13 balls to spare.
Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo