Tuskers secure semi-final berth
Matabeleland Tuskers secured their place in the semi-finals of the Stanbic Bank 20 Series with a 26-run win over reigning champions Mountaineers at Harare Sports Club. Paul Horton's well-paced 71, his first half-century in Twenty20 cricket, set up Tuskers' 162 for 6 before their bowlers dented Mountaineers' top order. Once a brief middle-order counter-attack had been dealt with the wickets tumbled regularly and Mountaineers were bowled out for 136 in the 18th over.
Tuskers captain Gavin Ewing spoke about the renewed spirit in his side after the match, and it was certainly a team effort that set up their win. With Horton scoring steadily, Charles Coventry helped Tuskers get over the early loss of Warwickshire allrounder Neil Carter with a typically flamboyant cameo. Both Lance Klusener and Tinashe Panyangara were dispatched with typical panache over the offside boundary, but if Coventry's shot-making was characteristic so was his dismissal. Not content with racing to 20 from his first nine balls, he tried one shot too many and placed a full ball from Panyangara in Greg Smith's hands at long-off.
Adam Wheater and Sean Williams didn't last long as Tuskers slipped to 78 for 4, and though Horton kept the scoreboard ticking over they were in danger of setting a sub-par total went Keith Dabengwa chipped Prosper Utseya straight to cover in the 16th over with the score only just past 100.
Keegan Meth, whose batting has been the more impressive facet of his game in this tournament, breathed some life into the innings with three boundaries in an over off Klusener and after Horton reached a 47-ball fifty he too opened up. With both batsmen in full flow, 57 runs came off the last four overs to help Tuskers to a competitive score.
After a subdued start to Mountaineers' chase, Hamilton Masakadza and Mark Vermeulen departed in the space of three balls to spark wild celebrations from Njabulo Ncube and Chris Mpofu, the successful bowlers. Twenty-two deliveries then passed without a single boundary, and the required rate was edging towards 10-an-over when South African import Jonathan Beukes aimed a wild swipe at Gavin Ewing's first ball - a full, flighted offspinner - to depart leg before.
With no option but to hit out Sean Ervine and Smith did just that, thrashing three fours and three sixes off the next two overs, from Meth and Ewing, before Smith attempted a reverse sweep to Dabengwa's left-arm spin and gloved a simple chance to Wheater behind the stumps. His dismissal signalled Mountaineers' demise, and a procession of batsmen walked to and from the crease as wickets tumbled.
The impressive Chris Mpofu ended the game by rattling Panyangara's stumps with a quick yorker, and while Tuskers have now booked their place in the semi-finals Mountaineers face a must-win match against a strong Southern Rocks side on Friday if they are to survive in the tournament.
Tuskers were a disappointment in all formats in their first season, but appear to be a far happier unit this time round and are now one step closer to claiming their first piece of silverware under the new franchise system. As the teams left the field, a smiling John Nyumbu insisted "the mood is a lot better than last year, I can tell you that".
Liam Brickhill is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo