Is Zimbabwe's fairytale ending?
After almost two months of wowing the cricketing world with their headline-grabbing comeback into the premier format of the game, with stories of their spirit and survival through barren cricketing times, Zimbabwe cricket's midnight hour has come. And their days of remaining cricket's prince charming are rapidly dwindling. They knew the fairytale would not last forever and that things would get more difficult. Pakistan are tough opposition and even though they regarded the tour of Zimbabwe as a way to introduce new players and change combinations, they were also careful not to approach it too lightly. As a result they succeeded in scalding Zimbabwe even on medium heat.
Their loss in the one-off Test was probably expected but the clean sweep of the one-day series was not, and Zimbabwe will feel aggrieved that in one Sunday afternoon of lethargic bowling, they let an entire series slip. That they went down fighting in the first match and threatened in parts of the third does not reflect on the results sheet. What is printed there is merely a record of them being outplayed with bat and ball, a purely objective summary of the events that took place on the field.
"We are better than that," Brendan Taylor said after the whitewash. "We know we can play better cricket than what we displayed in the last three ODIs." It's a defiant statement but it's also a plea to his own players to prove him right. Taylor is not simply spouting sentiment - Zimbabwe have already showed signs of improvement, although those signs did not translate into results.
They scored over 220 runs in each of the three matches, totals they were not able to reach through an entire World Cup. That they scored too slowly, often without intent or purpose, were bogged down in the middle overs of both their chases and never really got going when they batted first, are issues that need to be addressed. It's likely that fear of collapse is holding them back, as coach Alan Butcher indicated, something that can only be solved with greater self-belief in their ability to build a competitive total without imploding. "Our batters need to be more aggressive and harsher on themselves," Taylor said.
Vusi Sibanda, despite his tendency to get out playing the pull shot, is an example of this aggression. Sibanda has a fearless attitude in the time he spends at the crease. He is as sublime a driver of the ball as he is a puller and he showed improved shot selection as the series went on. Sibanda is a naturally attacking batsman and so, unlike some of his counterparts, he does not disappear into a shell when the bowling looks too difficult to take on. Younis Khan, Pakistan's man of the ODI series, singled out Sibanda and said that, "he performed in every game, even though he did not make a big ton, but in future he will be their star."
Some of the inhibition shown by the top order could also be because Zimbabwe's No. 6 and 7 spots are still too uncertain. Malcolm Waller and Elton Chigumbura have been used in those positions and, on the two occasions that Zimbabwe chased, were left with too much to do. Both are capable of hitting the ball a long way but they also need to be allowed to settle in and assess how to polish off a big total, something that has been lacking so far. Zimbabwe have to be careful not to over-rely on a burst at the end and so, have to pace their innings better in future. It was something both Taylor and Chamu Chibhabha have isolated as an area of concern. "When the spinners came on, there were too many dots balls," Chibhabha, who scored his first half-century in the third match, said.
Zimbabwe's inexperience is actually more prevalent in their bowling and Brian Vitori and Kyle Jarvis were lucky to escape any scathing criticism from their captain. Against quality batsmen, they took time to find the correct lengths, something they can't afford to do in future, when they will be required to be accurate from the first ball. "They [Pakistan] got off to a flier and that put us on the backfoot immediately," was all Taylor would say about Pakistan's start after Thursday's match, preferring to focus on the "character" Chigumbura and the spinners showed to rein Pakistan in.
In the field, they have got better, with the fielding improving gradually over the course of the series. They managed to fluff some simple chances, take some blinders and add some buoyancy to their game in that department. They still didn't get it entirely right and that's what concerned Taylor as Zimbabwe look ahead to a home-and-away series against a New Zealand side that is reputed for its discipline. "All three departments have to be spot on if you are going to compete and win," Taylor said. "We seem to get two right and forget about the third one but, in time, things will come right for us."
They have done the right thing by not being impatient and overly harsh on themselves, because improvement will only come with experience. Younis said that he saw signs of a bright future for Zimbabwe. "If they play regularly against tougher sides they will improve, they have the capability to be successful in international arena."
Although Zimbabwe are willing to bide the time necessary to build up the experience to challenge on a global stage, they also have to be more critical of themselves, something that started after the clean sweep. For the first time, Taylor showed genuine annoyance and admitted that he expected more. "We're definitely good enough to turn things around," he said.
It's a tricky scale that Taylor will gave to balance between applying pressure gently and offering enough support so that Zimbabwe don't collapse under the strain of losing. They need to be scolded gently and cajoled with a hint of force so that they understand that while they will be given the necessary space to improve, they have to make some haste in doing so, so that the fairytale doesn't come to an abrupt end.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent