There were hopes that an inexperienced Indian team would narrow the gulf between the two sides, but, contrary to expectations, at the end of five games that gulf widened. India went on to achieve their first 5-0 ODI series sweep away from home following another one-sided contest at Bulawayo. The script wasn't very different from the fourth ODI. Zimbabwe lost the toss, suffered another top-order meltdown, posted a below-par total and watched India's young batsmen bide their time and pile on scores to keep the selectors interested.
Amit Mishra has been in and out of the India squad for the last few years and he had the most to gain from this series, taking 6 for 48 and extending his series tally to 18. Ajinkya Rahane, brought in to replace Rohit Sharma, made good use of his opportunity, making an exact 50. With the series decided after the third game, the remaining matches were nothing more than a selection trial for the A tour of South Africa - many of whom are part of that series - and the tour of South Africa later on.
Without taking any credit away from Mishra, he had the Zimbabwe batsmen to thank for gifting away their wickets with abysmal shot selection, in their last chance to salvage a consolation win. A cold and windy Saturday morning greeted the teams and after Virat Kohli chose to give his bowlers best use of the conditions, it was always a question of survival for the top order. Zimbabwe struggled to get partnerships going and it was left to the middle order to build from scratch. When the sun came out, the specialist batsmen were all back in the pavilion, leaving the tail to negotiate more than 15 overs. The innings lasted just under 40 overs.
With tougher contests coming up for India in the coming months, there would have been a strong case for India batting first in favourable bowling conditions and gaining experience. The second ODI, where they recovered from 65 for 4, was a test of skill and adaptability but the evidence in the last two ODIs suggested that the emphasis was more on capitalising at the toss with a 5-0 sweep in mind.
As expected, the batsmen were nervy at the start. Captain Brendan Taylor's loss of form was a big concern coming into this match, with him averaging just 8.75 in the series, and in his last chance to make amends he departed for a scratchy 11-ball duck. Taylor tried to break free by chasing one from Mohit Sharma outside the off stump, only to edge to second slip. Vusi Sibanda's wicket - caught behind off Jaydev Unadkat - started the procession and Zimbabwe's hopes of turning the corner with the bat were dashed as they lost two wickets within ten overs.
Hamilton Masakadza was positive from the outset, but the drinks break broke his concentration. Ravindra Jadeja cramped him for room and yet, Masakadza decided to cut, only to chop it onto the stumps first ball after the break. The loss of wickets put a stranglehold on the scoring, with as many as nine overs in the first 25 producing just one run.
A poor shot, off an equally bad ball, cost Zimbabwe another wicket. Malcolm Waller shaped to pull a long hop from Mishra and got a top edge that swirled to Mohit at mid-on. Zimbabwe didn't lose a wicket for another ten overs but, for the second time, the first ball after a drinks break produced a wicket. Elton Chigumbura was trapped lbw coming forward to Mishra, who struck again in the over getting Tinotenda Mutombodzi to edge to slip.
Williams was caught off a top edge off Mishra for 51, but it was a shot of frustration more than anything else. Williams was the only batsman who looked like batting through, but the lack of support at the other end must have upset his plans. Mishra cleaned up the tail to equal Javagal Srinath's bilateral-series record haul of 18 against New Zealand in 2002-03, though that was a seven-match series.
The only Indian player to miss out, for the second time, was Cheteshwar Pujara, bowled for the second time in two games, beaten by a beautiful incutter by Kyle Jarvis. Pujara will have a chance to make amends when he leads the A team to South Africa. Jarvis continued to pose questions outside the off stump, getting Shikhar Dhawan to nick to the keeper, halting a brisk knock that gave India an early push before the lunch break.
Rahane's stint should have ended on 7, when the wicketkeeper Taylor fluffed an easy run-out chance with Rahane yards short. He capitalised on that lapse with a steady fifty, driving and pulling with ease. Kohli held himself back again for the sake of a younger player, this time Jadeja. Like Suresh Raina did on Thursday, Jadeja made good use of the promotion, scoring an unbeaten 48 and sealing the series with a six.
The series was good for India's potential replacements. For Zimbabwe, the challenge may only get tougher when Pakistan and Sri Lanka visit later, if they field full-strength sides.