Unforgiving Australia expose Zimbabwe's cracks
"Get ready for a broken f***ing window," Mitchell Johnson didn't say to Elton Chigumbura as he strode out to bat, though a warning to the television commentators, who were sprayed by shards of glass after Johnson's monstrous mow down the ground smashed a press-box window, might have been charitable. Charity, however, has never been the Australian way.
For Zimbabwe, charity clearly begins at home and their meek showing surely helped Australia ease into the tour, if they had any rust to shake off after a five-month lay-off. Australia have only been in the country since Thursday, but there was more intensity to their centre-wicket practice at the Country Club on Saturday than there was at any point during this match - until Johnson shattered the peace.
The press-box windows are made of shatterproof glass, but a similarly massive hit several years ago had weakened that pane. No one had seen fit to replace it, presumably reckoning the odds of someone hitting the exact spot were slim indeed. The brittleness of Zimbabwe's cricket team stems from a similar selection of dents, cracks and fault lines - and none of them have been repaired either. Along comes the world's top-ranked one-day side, and Zimbabwe are duly shattered into little pieces. For at least a decade, Zimbabwe have masked their weaknesses and papered over their cracks, without ever settling on a lasting solution. As Tatenda Taibu put it before he walked away from the game: "ZC are just painting a house that has no foundations."
A South African side might let you get away with that without overly heavy punishment. Like a big brother easing off as he notices tears welling in the eyes of a younger sibling, it now seems South Africa went somewhat easy on the Zimbabweans - despite the 3-0 scoreline from their one-day series. There was no such clemency from Australia, whose ground-and-pound strategy was evident in Maxwell's relentless hitting and Johnson's equally unforgiving bowling, with both contributing to Zimbabwe's 198-run defeat: their largest against Australia.
Zimbabwe are not being helped by the inconsistencies in their selection. Richmond Mutumbami, asked to open against South Africa, was shunted to No. 7 while Zimbabwe field-tested yet another unsuccessful opening partnership in Tino Mawoyo and Sikandar Raza. Brendan Taylor, dropped for the third ODI against South Africa, was brought back but wafted nervously to slip before he could make an impact. Earlier, Chigumbura had done his best to juggle a bowling attack missing Brian Vitori, Neville Madziva, Luke Jongwe and Shingi Masakadza - all of whom played against South Africa as part of what coach Steve Mangongo called Zimbabwe's "best possible XI".
Mangongo, it is hoped, has a firm grip on the whys and wherefores of Zimbabwe's selection decisions. He better, given he and Givemore Makoni now make up the entire selection panel after Wayne James was removed on Friday. The idea that "no one is safe" has permeated the team's recent selections, but the result of that is that Zimbabwe can find no peace either on or off the field. What effect must playing for one's place in every match have on a team for whom confidence has never come easily, and for whom defeat is a fact of life?
"Pressure is always there," Mangongo insisted in the post-match press conference. "Whether you're playing game one, game 20, game 200, pressure is always there. And if you don't perform, I don't see any science in you playing.
"Yes there will always be people given a run, but there are also certain people who have been given enough of a run that, yes, they will be dropped. Simple and straightforward. But there is no guy who has played one game and then gets dropped the next game. But if you have played more than 50 games and you don't perform and you don't execute your role, you have got no justification whatsoever to be in the team."
Mangongo will himself be no stranger to pressure, given his role as head coach and selector combines the batting, bowling, fielding and strategic coaching roles all on his own, with previous batting and bowling coaches Grant Flower and Heath Streak now working with Pakistan and Bangladesh respectively.
"It's extremely difficult; absolute nightmare," admitted Mangongo. "I know for a fact that Zimbabwe Cricket administrators are working on that, so hopefully we will have the right set-up as we go along. But yes you cannot have a head coach trying to coach batting one-on-one, bowling, spin, fast bowlers, team strategy, gameplan, you name it."
Perhaps Zimbabwe's most notable achievement was managing to keep their over rate in check despite having to fetch the ball from beyond the boundary 15 times. They will at least have the week to re-group before their match against South Africa on Friday. Australia's only worry, if one can call it that, is that their squad only contains one specialist spinner and despite the fact that the Harare Sports Club pitch is likely to play slow and low throughout the series, Nathan Lyon was their most expensive bowler.
Mitchell Marsh, who chipped in with a wicket to complement his 89 at no. 3, shrugged off suggestions that Australia might be a spinner light.
"The way all the bowlers bowled today, they took pace off the ball at the right time and I think that's going to be key on this wicket," said Marsh. "There's a lot of experience in our changing rooms, they've played on these sorts of wickets all around the world, so I don't think it's anything too new."
Liam Brickhill is a freelance journalist based in Cape Town