Zimbabwe v South Africa, only Test, Harare, 1st day August 9, 2014

Zimbabwe ride the rollercoaster

Zimbabwe were excited and nervous about facing South Africa's full-strength pace battery. After their edgy beginning, Brendan Taylor showed that a platform could be built, with intense focus and a little luck

At the tipping point of an amusement park ride, stomachs knot, palms sweat and heads buzz as fun steps on a collision course with fear. Those sensory reactions and the feelings of unease only last a few seconds, which makes it all worthwhile.

Imagine if it went on for minutes, hours or even a full day. It would become nauseating. Only a strong core, a dry towel and painkillers would make it bearable but most people would want to get off that.

Zimbabwe did not do that. They had jitters but they did not let them turn to jelly - they stumbled and then they got back up, they fought, they flourished and they clung on by their fingernails so that in the end they gave a credible account of themselves against the world's premier pace pack and a promising spinner. A year without Test cricket may have robbed them of match time but it did nothing to the amount of heart they have.

Their rollercoaster started when they knew they were scheduled to play a full-strength South African side complete with its full pace battery. They were excited at the prospect of facing up to Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel but were terrified of them as well.

They swung between the great gusto of initially preparing both a green mamba and a brown house-snake but showed common sense by choosing the less dangerous pitch and dehydrating it for good measure. In doing that, they showed they were not willing to be reckless but would respect themselves enough to try and be reasonable. They would go into the game with seatbelts fastened and helmets on.

Vusi Sibanda sensibly ducked under the first bouncer he was presented with and did not try and pull it, as his instincts may have instructed him to. He let the next one - outside off and moving away - go. He tried to leave first, defend second and look for runs last. Hamilton Masakadza did the same.

For two overs the tension they created could have held a rope strong enough to lift the Costa Concordia. Sibanda was almost caught on the backfoot to a Steyn delivery that swung; he edged another to gully as he tried to watch it go past. Masakadza faced an appeal for caught behind as he left a short ball, his edge was also found but fell short of third slip.

Caution was the main focus, the same as when a rollercoaster inches up to the point at which it will be released. The movements are slow but deliberate and the moment of truth, although expected still comes as a surprise. That's what happened at the start of the third over. Sibanda opened the face and committed to playing, the ball shaped away and the edge carried.

The ride had crashed down and as Mark Vermeulen walked out, it began its journey back up. He left the short ball, then he got on the back foot and blocked it, then he almost edged one. Masakadza watched one through, then wasn't sure if he should go forward or backward to defend, then ducked a shorter one.

Only after 22 deliveries did contact actually result in something when Masakadza pushed into the covers and ran. He ran quickly, Vermeulen responded quickly, the fielder responded not quite as quickly but it was still a scramble and all that produced only one. The second time it happened it produced two but even that would not be enough to ease anxiety, especially with what followed.

Vermeulen tried to defend a Philander delivery which just evaded him with some away movement and there was a confident appeal. Aleem Dar was not convinced and he was right. It was back to leaving, watching, defending, hoping, pushing, maybe even some praying like when an edge evaded gully for four soon afterwards.

"I was very edgy batting. I couldn't sit still," said Brendan Taylor, who watched the first hour from the change-room as he waited to bat. But as the clock ticked, the moments of trepidation became fewer and the moments of confidence greater. There was Vermeulen's backfoot punch for three and Masakadza's quick move to get out of the way of one directed at his head. There was Vermeulen's delicate touch to fine leg and then the real ice-breaker, Masakadza's freeing of the arms and crash through the covers for four. The rope snapped. Zimbabwe could hold their own.

"Mark and Hammie (Masakadza) started to look solid," Taylor said. "That gives the guys coming in some breathing room."

Even though Vermeulen left Taylor with rebuilding to do he had shown that the team was not working in an earthquake zone and something could be built. It would need intense focus, lapses from the bowlers and a bit of luck.

Masakadza provided the first of those when he dragged himself to 3 off 36 balls before allowing himself some freedom. Throughout his innings he had flashes of aggression to compliment the concentration. Taylor was party to it as well with his trademark approach of temperament above technique. The sweep shot was the exclamation mark of his innings but the restraint he showed, the patience and the determination strung all the letters and words that really matter together.

The South Africans allowed the second when Dane Piedt got a little loose after lunch and there were sprinklings of misfields. And there was enough of the third for Zimbabwe to feel fortune played its part too. Edges went for four, some fell short of fielders like Taylor at short leg when he was on 63, a run-out opportunity which may have seen Richmond Mutumbami dismissed on 13 was not capitalised on and there were missed chances - Tinashe Panyangara when he could have been caught by Steyn in his follow-through, Piedt could have had Tiripano the same way in the final over.

That was balanced by strokes of bad luck which could have stymied Zimbabwe's progress. Mutumbami's lbw looked like it could have been going down leg, Tendai Chatara's caught behind may have come off the right thigh pad. Zimbabwe too were guilty of mistakes. Taylor holing out on 93 as he tried to hurry to his hundred with the new ball looming was one of them. He admitted he should have "had more faith in the tail."

But Taylor's disappointment was couched in satisfaction that his team had "showed a lot of character," in how they fronted up to the world's best. Now he is only asking for more fight on a pitch which he thinks should facilitate that demand.

"The surface is bone dry and very abrasive. The wicket will only get worse," Taylor said. Ordinarily that may not be a good thing but for Zimbabwe it is. If it's showing those signs on day one, it will give us some confidence with the runs we have already. Our spin bowlers will have a big part to play tomorrow."

Given the line-up they are facing, it's best their strap themselves in as tightly as the batsman did.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent