There's a word in Shona, one of Zimbabwe's national languages, which expresses surprise. It also reveals degrees of comparison by the number of 'i's used. That word is iwe.

You may say "iiwe", when someone tells you there is a storm on the way on a sunny day. Or "iiiiwe" when you find that the store has run out of some much-needed product. But if you were on the grass embankment under the main scoreboard at Seddon Park, what would have heard was "iiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiwe".

Zimbabwe did not pull off the ultimate surprise and give this World's Cup its first upset. They did not have a centurion, a bowler with a five-wicket haul or a total of over 300. But they did push South Africa much further than they would have wanted to be pushed with a plucky performance that may leave the likes of Pakistan, West Indies and India worried about how they will fare against them.

For a side that was blanked in Bangladesh less than two months ago, who are known for being under-resourced in financial and personnel terms, and who seldom play away from home or under lights, Zimbabwe surprised with their spirit. They have an attack with options, they have batsmen with temperament and so they have a chance. But they need to polish their potential before they can present a serious enough challenge to beat the big boys.

Tinashe Panyangara and Tendai Chatara have neither express pace nor overt aggression in their make-up. Elton Chigumbura tends to be expensive. Solomon Mire is still showing us what he is about. Tafadzwa Kamungozi can turn the ball but not around corners. Sean Williams was nothing more than part-timer a few months ago. While Hamilton Masakadza and Sikandar Raza are only used to eat away at overs. But the thing about Zimbabwe's attack is that it can often be like a blind date.

An opposition line-up is not quite sure what to expect, or even who, so a touch of circumspection is always required upfront. At some point Prosper Utseya, a man who made his name with offspin, is going to bowl medium-pace. Talk about iiiiwe.

The options in their XI mean that Zimbabwe have eight different people to toss the ball to but, while most team would love that luxury, the burden of choice can also be a heavy one. Management became tricky for Chigumbura as he held back his frontliners because the rest were keeping South Africa fairly quiet. In so doing, though, he let David Miller and JP Duminy settle so they could get away later on.

The over after AB de Villiers was dismissed, Raza was used. He bowled three overs at a cost of 19 runs, which may not sound too bad but South Africa were going at just four an over at that stage. Raza's spell was part of a period of 68 balls in which South Africa did not get a boundary but they did manage 31 singles and six twos in that time, slowly milking the bowling. By the time 30 overs had been bowled, South Africa had yet to reach a run rate of five an over but the partnership between Miller and Duminy was approaching fifty.

Then, the runs came quicker and quicker and before Chigumbura knew it, he had to look for a death bowler. That person is still missing in Zimbabwe's attack, although the plans are not. Their intent to bowl yorkers was obvious, the execution, woeful. Full toss after full toss allowed South Africa the flourishing finish they wanted and more.

Zimbabwe may have been able to handle a chase of around 300, but one substantially over that mark presented a psychological barrier as well as a numerical one. Someone would have to go as big as Miller went, maybe even bigger. Patience would be as important as pushing on and all of that would have to be done against an attack lauded as the best in the world.

At some point, the sheer magnitude of what needed to be done would descend on Zimbabwe. That's just what happens to teams who do not play regularly in pressure situations. What Zimbabwe would have hoped is that, by the time that happened, they had given themselves the best chance of causing a few more iiiiiiwes to be uttered in their praise.

Chamu Chibhabha did when he fronted up to both Morne Morkel and Dale Steyn as if he were merely a man catching frisbees. He did not get out of the way, he took it on. When Morkel overpitched, he drove, when Steyn angled it down the leg side, he helped it on its way. He built the foundations of belief.

Masakadza helped, pulling, picking gaps, sweeping, deftly directing deliveries where he wanted them to go, always fighting. That was what characterised Zimbabwe's showing. They fought even when the fight was over. Even when victory became impossible. Even when the singing fans were silent. They fought to show they can fight.

Until the start of the 47th over of their reply, they were ahead of where South Africa were at the same stage in their innings, albeit with a few more wickets down. They didn't have a 48th over worth 30 runs. They didn't have that little bit extra that wins games and the World Cup is ultimately about winning.

So yes, Zimbabwe have some catching up to do as far is that is concerned. But the World Cup is also about inducing a few iiiiiiiiwes along the way and, on that score, Zimbabwe are right on track.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent