Sri Lanka completed a series whitewash over Zimbabwe with a 19-run victory in the fifth and final ODI at Harare Sports Club, but, not for the first time in the last week, Zimbabwe threw away a gilt-edged chance of winning within sight of the finishing line. Given a little more experience and common sense, Zimbabwe could actually have won two, if not three, of the matches, but when you average only 128 an innings, it is always going to be an uphill battle.
At the start of the 41st over, they needed 23 to win with four wickets in hand, with Keith Dabengwa and Prosper Utseya, who had added 72 for the seventh wicket, well set. Even though they held all the cards, in this series the Zimbabwe batting has been brittle, and today was to be no exception as they lost their last four wickets for three runs.
Dabengwa's dismissal started the collapse, bowled by Nuwan Kulasekara giving himself room when no risks were needed, and two overs later Kulasekara struck with successive deliveries to strip the remaining fight from the Zimbabweans. Muttiah Muralitharan, who had earlier left the top-order as bewildered as rabbits in car headlights, completed the formalities to finish with 5 for 29.
Had the specialist batsmen applied themselves as Dabengwa and Utseya did, then Zimbabwe would have romped to victory. The message from the Sri Lankan innings was clear for all to see - it was not a day for big hitting, and with a required rate of three an over, ones and twos would be enough. Instead, they set off as if this was a Twenty20 thrash, encouraging Mahela Jayawardene to summon Muralitharan as early as the fourth over to take them up on their challenge.
On a slow, low pitch favouring slow bowling, common sense dictated that the class of Muralitharan and Ajantha Mendis needed careful management. Zimbabwe had other ideas and opted to either swing across the line or poke indecisively from the crease. After 12.1 overs they had crumbled to 58 for 6 and Muralitharan can rarely have taken four easier wickets.
Dabengwa and Utseya then combined in the only meaningful partnership of the day, galvanising a slumbering and small crowd into life. Sri Lanka played their part with some indifferent bowling and catching, Kumar Sangakkara the worst culprit with at least four spills including two in two off the unfortunate Mendis. On almost any other day, they would not have been able to shake off such lapses. That they did was entirely down to Zimbabwe's inexperience.
The shame was that Zimbabwe had turned in one of their best performances in the field to bowl Sri Lanka out for 152. The key to their success was the way their spinners exploited an already lifeless pitch to strangle the batsmen, supported by some excellent fielding.
It was the quick bowlers who made the breakthroughs, Jayawardene checking a drive off Tawanda Mupariwa to mid-off and then Ed Rainsford bowling Upul Tharanga via an inside edge and pad. Had Tatenda Taibu, who has had a poor series behind the stumps, held onto a bottom edge from Sangakkara in between those dismissals then Sri Lanka would have been in a real mess.
With his opening bowlers keeping a tight rein on things, Prosper Utseya, whose captaincy is under increasing scrutiny, kept them on, and he was rewarded when Chamara Kapugedera flicked Mupariwa to midwicket. At 23 for 3 in the 14th over, Zimbabwe were in control. Sangakkara and Jehan Mubarak just about prevented the scoreboard from seizing up, but runs were at a premium early on, confirmed by the fact there were only two fours and a six in the entire innings.
The difficulty of batting on this surface was all too evident when the Sri Lankans tried to force the pace in the final overs. Despite some swings and heaves, runs remained elusive, although Angelo Mathews, whose intent was clear from the off and who alone appeared capable of scoring at a one-day rate, did manage a sweet six over midwicket.
As is so often the case, mix-ups were plentiful, and twice Taibu athletically pounced and scored direct hits to run-out the non striker, but as Sri Lanka tried to hit out, the chances came thick and fast. Rainsford, who has not had the best of luck in earlier games, returned to polish off the innings and finished with 3 for 22.
What mattered in the end was that the last ten overs produced 51 runs. Given Zimbabwe's lack of experience and rock-bottom confidence, that turned out to be the difference between the sides.