Zimbabwe v Pakistan, 1st Test, Harare, 4th day September 6, 2013

Exausted Zimbabwe let it slip through the fingers

For 11 and half sessions before that interval, Zimbabwe had done most things right, but they let the game slip away in 8.3 overs on day 4

There is a point in a dream when, no matter how real the events unfolding in the deepest moments of sleep seem, you realise they are not. For Zimbabwe, that happened at the drinks break in the third session. Pakistan were 276 runs ahead, Younis Khan had planted roots into the pitch, Rahat Ali had just hit his first boundary, a disdainful slap off Tendai Chatara's bowling, and the match was turning.

For 11 and half sessions before that interval, Zimbabwe had done most things right. They justified their captain's decision to bowl first in conditions which could assist the quicks, they batted with Test-match temperament, they made good their lead by bowling well upfront again and they had a decent chance of limiting Pakistan to a gettable total through a miserly effort in the second innings. Until then.

It was after that break in play that tired legs and similarly exhausted minds overwhelmed the discipline they showed for most of the day. Fuller lengths played into the hands of the last pair who were obviously looking to accelerate in the latter stages of the innings and Zimbabwe's gameplan unraveled.

After conceding at just 2.6 an over for the 71 overs they bowled in the innings up to that point, Zimbabwe leaked at 6.7 runs an over for the final 8.3 overs. Younis Khan went in search of a double hundred and found it and Rahat Ali proved as good at holding up an end as he did at slogging and looking for singles.

During those overs, the complexion of Zimbabwe's Test changed completely. They went from being in the game to just playing in a game, from being in a position to compete on the final day, to being in a position from which surviving would be the only aim and from being able to think about winning to having to focus only on a draw.

Realistically, to expect anything more from Zimbabwe would be fanciful. They have scored over 300 in a fourth innings before but the circumstances were completely different. They achieved the score on a dead Bulawayo track two years ago against New Zealand. They also lost the match.

The same happened back in 2002 when they managed 310 against Pakistan here in Harare, chasing an improbable 430. Zimbabwean cricket looked completely different then, so any comparisons are unnecessary, although Hamilton Masakadza is a survivor from that very game. But they have never chased in excess of 300 to win and are not contemplating it as a genuine possibility now.

"We must be realistic. To get a win would be amazing but we will definitely go into tomorrow playing for the draw," Grant Flower, Zimbabwe's batting coach said. "It will be a big challenge for us, against a good attack which includes Saeed Ajmal, especially as it's keeping a bit low and starting to turn a bit more."

Zimbabwe recognise it would be far better to share honours with Pakistan than to lose. But that realisation - that they could have put themselves in a position to beat Pakistan - will sting bitterly when the final analysis of this game is done.

For the contest to be decided in 51 balls seems unfair but it is an illustration of how small the margins in Test cricket are. Considering that a maximum of 2,700 deliveries can be bowled in any Test, 51 balls is a mere 1.8%. Numerically, that is how fine the room for error was in this Test. That percentage can translate to something like a dropped catch, of which Zimbabwe had two. Letting Younis Khan off the hook on 83 and 117 proved to be expensive mistakes. Had either Tino Mawoyo or Malcolm Waller held on, Zimbabwe could have been looking at a much smaller target.

"Test cricket is cruel and we saw that. We dropped Younis twice and he made us pay," Flower said. That's what class batsmen do."

It can also manifest itself in the small errors of judgment bowlers make as a batsmen of Younis' quality wears them down. A touch too full or too short can happen to anyone but the longer one is out there, the more chance there is of it occurring, especially with an attack that essentially had four specialist bowlers and Hamilton Masakadza to operate as the fifth.

Zimbabwe's cricketers last played a Test over five months ago and this is only their fifth Test in two years. They are not used to regular rigours of the longest format and eventually, that started to show.

"In the last hour or so that we were out there fatigue set in, both physical and mental and we couldn't take back control," Flower said. "Those passages of play where the ability to drive proceedings no longer exists, is where advantages are squandered."

Whatever happens on the final day, there is no doubt Zimbabwe have improved as a Test nation. Flower regarded the performance so far as the best of 2013 especially because it has come "against one of the best sides in the world and with all the off-field problems". He admitted they will look for the draw tomorrow and hope to build on the gains made in the next match.

But what happens after that? With the Sri Lanka visit certain to be postponed and no Test cricket scheduled for 11 months until South Africa are due to visit in August 2014, the gains made now may end up being worth nothing by the next time Zimbabwe take the field in whites.

"That's what we face in Zimbabwe," Flower said. "We're used to practicing a lot because we don't play much so we have a big emphasis on fitness but we also need to be playing tough international sides in between that because otherwise you get left behind."

If that were to happen even more than it already has, Zimbabwean cricket would face a much ruder awakening than the one they had in the last 8.3 overs of the Pakistan innings today.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent