Inexperience overwhelms Zimbabwe's preparation
The Zimbabwe squad have spent the last ten weeks doing very little else besides getting fit, bowling, batting and catching cricket balls. How many catches must each fielder have held in that time? How many balls must each batsman have hit, or a bowler bowled? Plenty, no doubt. Yet, when it matters, catches are dropped. Batsmen's shots evaporate. Bowlers over-step at crucial times. Why?
There was a point during Friday's match when it seemed that, despite the costly errors of the morning, Zimbabwe's batsmen had put the Indian bowlers under pressure and put their in a position from which they should win. At the end of the 20th over, Zimbabwe were 109 for 1. Vusi Sibanda raced to fifty, Dinesh Karthik had just missed a stumping, and, to end the over, Hamilton Masakadza had spanked a rank full toss from Amit Mishra almost clear out of the ground. Game on.
In the next over, Zimbabwe lost Sibanda and Brendan Taylor - who they believe is their best batsman - in quick succession. Suddenly, their confidence dissipated. In minutes, they slipped to 133 for 6, and the match was gone.
The focal point of pressure in a batting side is the middle order. If numbers 4, 5 and 6 need to do anything well, it's absorb pressure. With everything at stake, the hosts' middle order capitulated. When the game was gone, and it didn't really matter what the rest of the batsmen did, Elton Chigumbura and Prosper Utseya put together a tidy 88-run stand for the seventh wicket - incidentally, the second highest partnership of the entire match.
Andy Waller, the Zimbabwe coach, admitted that this defeat was more disappointing than Wednesday's, given that they had won a crucial toss and found themselves in strong positions more than once in the game. "We were in a good position to beat them and some rash shots cost us," he said. "It actually showed with the partnership of Prosper and Elton - without any pressure, they got us to the 180, 190 after 40 [overs]. Had we only been two or three down, we probably would've been 210, 220 looking at 70 in the last ten. I'd say, after twenty overs, I thought we were going to win the game. Even though we let them get away with a lot more runs, I thought we had a chance but then we made some silly errors."
To put it another way, Zimbabwe choked. Much has been made of the susceptibility of Zimbabwe's southern neighbours' to the 'C' word, but choking or panicking in pressure situations certainly isn't the preserve of the South Africans. In his famous essay The Art of Failure, author and journalist Malcolm Gladwell dissects the reasons why skilled people might fail in times of stress. Gladwell draws a clear distinction between choking and panicking, writing that the former is a result of thinking too much, while panic is an outcome of thinking too little. The differentiator, it seems is experience. People without experience panic because they don't know what to do, while people with experience choke because they forget how to do it.
Yet what if one is highly trained, as the Zimbabweans are, but lacks the experience of putting that training into effect? Did Zimbabwe choke on Friday, or did they panic?
"One thing we can't do is put it down to not practising hard," added Waller. "For ten weeks now, we field every day, we take catches every day, we throw at stumps every day. We do a lot of batting, we do a lot of bowling, and we practice those things. We're looking for no-balls and that sort of stuff.
"But it's different when you get out to the middle. Those pressure situations: the more we play, the more we're going to be able to handle those pressures and become mentally stronger. I was saying to the guys, we have to learn from our mistakes. Other teams who are playing all the time, they're playing games and they can learn from that. We're not going to get all those games so we've got to learn a damn lot quicker than the opposition do."
While Zimbabwe have practised, hard, on every off day during this series, India haven't really turned up much, apart from at the matches themselves. Their first 'practice' involved some light fielding, with plenty of laughs, and a spot of football. The Indians see no value in intensive training of that sort - not on a minor tour such as this one, not at this level, and especially not unless it's accompanied by actual experience of game situations. They'll net, sure, but when was the last time you heard about India - or any top side for that matter - focus purely on training for more than two months?
The catch is that Zimbabwe don't really have any other options. In the absence of regular international competition, they practice. Because they practice too much and play too little, when they do find some quality opponents they flounder, making further competition more unlikely and leaving them with no option but to train some more. In the last year, Zimbabwe have played eight ODIs. Since June, India have played 12. It's not that these teams aren't on a level playing field. They're barely playing the same sport.
The situation is clearly unfair, but what is left for Zimbabwe? Should they just pack up and forget this whole international cricket lark? What could possibly break them out of this funk? Waller, only two matches old in his national coaching career, is firm in his support for his charges. "I still believe we've got the players. I have no doubt we've got the players who can get the runs but we've got to learn from our mistakes."
That's undoubtedly true, but in the remainder of this series, and the ones which follow later this year against Pakistan and Sri Lanka, the pressure to win and turn things around, will only increase the longer Zimbabwe go without a victory.
"The importance of the next two or three months is huge and that's what we keep discussing," captain Brendan Taylor said earlier this week. "It's up to us players to try to contribute to getting the public back in and getting sponsors back in. So it's a big time for us and a couple of good results against the best side in the world can only do us some good."
It's not a fair game, and there are no easy answers or solutions for Zimbabwe. All they can do is pick themselves up, dust themselves off and come back for more. They cannot run from pressure situations. They've got to learn to embrace them. Somewhere along the way, they've got to find some self-belief.
Liam Brickhill is a freelance journalist based in Cape Town