Alagappan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo
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India 255 for 6 (Rayudu 124*, Binny 77, Chibhabha 2-25) beat Zimbabwe 251 for 7 (Chigumbura 104*, Axar 2-41) by four runsScorecard and ball-by-ball details
Fifty off thirty balls. Tense. Elton Chigumbura defuses the pressure with a rasping cut. Forty-five off 24. He winds up and lashes a full toss to the cover boundary. Harare had been jiving with their captain. Song and dance galore. Thirty-two off 18. He tonks a four through long-on and Zimbabwe believed. They beamed with their captain as he collected a second successive ODI century. As it is with low-scorers - the target Zimbabwe were chasing was only 256 - nerves of both team's were put through a shredder.
India though weren't quite so accommodating. Amid the many harried discussions, they made sure the best yorker bowler had the final over. Bhuvneshwar Kumar hit the mark enough to sever Zimbabwe's feel-good vibes. The home crowd can't be too cheery when their team needs six off one ball. And he nailed one last yorker to help his team break out of jail, and India's own centurion Ambati Rayudu sigh in relief as well.
Zimbabwe's best chance would have been if one of their seniors shepherded the innings. Two of them were undone by beautiful left-arm spin bowling from Axar Patel. Hamilton Masakadza surprised by extra bounce and popped a catch to point. Sean Williams was lured forward only for the ball to dip and sneak through the gate.
To compound that, Sikandar Raza launched a Harbhajan Singh long-hop - can happen when you're coming back to ODIs after four years - down to Axar again at deep midwicket. Zimbabwe were 142 for 5. Zimbabwe needed something special. They got Chigumbura and they were roaring approval with every bottom-handed bludgeon.
Chigumbura's hits met the fence nine times and he was one of only three batsmen in the match to have a strike rate over 100. Beyond that, he strung vital partnerships through the middle order - 42 with Masakadza, 48 with Raza and a calculated 86 with No. 8 Graeme Cremer to keep the hosts' threat alive. At one point, a young ball boy raced to the edge of the boundary and gleefully welcomed the ball towards him. All was going well, until the final hurdle, when Zimbabwe stumbled.
"I think we're the envy of a few to be honest," coach Dav Whatmore had said with respect to their bench strength. That assessment is merited when it comes to their batting - since the start of the year, their batsmen have posted totals excess of 270 six out of eight completed matches. The downside though is one solitary win.
The reason for that is their bowling. A motley crew of medium-pacers were excellent when the ball was new and early morning conditions offered some assistance. They had half of India's line-up back in the pavilion by the time half the innings was done. Chigumbura barely had any work to do in the first 30-odd overs. The ball was put on a good length, outside off and allowed to do its bit. But once the slog overs came, their radar suffered a bad blip and the finishing blow never came. Good length balls outside off stump don't work when the only swing on offer is from the bat looking for deep midwicket.
Rayudu, to his credit, waited and waited and waited for those shortcomings. He might not be the most water-tight No. 3 around, but throughout the innings he showed he was capable of smart cricket. Overpitched deliveries fed his drives, and he peppered a wide arc from cover to long-on. But when that length wasn't there, he was quite judicious at not letting his bat travel too far from his body. A general rule for anyone who is sucked into the middle by the fourth over.
Zimbabwe, having decided to field, continued to rack up a lot of dot-ball pressure. There were 160 of them overall with the Harare pitch being as stingy as the local bowlers. But through it all Rayudu held on. He was 25 off 50, learning that when he targeted the easy escape to third man the sideways movement bested him. He pushed to 50 off 72, realising that his technique was in better order having spent time at the crease. He ended up with his second ODI century and his longest innings in international cricket.
Stuart Binny hadn't been the most solid either. But it may have helped that Binny played legspinner Cremer the most at the time he was building his innings - 25 runs off 31 balls. By then the innings had surreptitiously reached the tipping point that every Zimbabwe supporter fears: the final few overs. And Binny opened his shoulders. He trod past his fifty off the 63rd ball in the 45th over, cracked three fours and a six to finish with 77 off 76. And India finished with 51 in the last five overs.
Until their partnership - 160 off 147 balls, the highest sixth-wicket stand for India in ODIs - it had been old-fashioned cricket. Cautious batsmen and line bowling. M Vijay, playing his first ODI in two years, fished outside off stump and was caught in the slips - a fielding position Zimbabwe used quite late into the game much to Ajinkya Rahane's chagrin. In the 18th over, the new India captain gave catching practice to Masakadza at first slip and was left contemplating another start not capitalised: 34 off 49.
Then Manoj Tiwary was caught plumb in front, Robin Uthappa made a poor call to be run out for a duck and Kedhar Jadhav feathered an edge to the keeper for 5. Four of the top six falling for single-figures at a time when India are looking for new batsmen. But at least the new ODI playing conditions were ushered in with a game that went down to the last ball.
Zimbabwe let it slip by inches, again
If Zimbabwe have an Achilles heel, it's their inability to maintain sustained pressure once they've assumed a position of dominance over the opposition. In this match, India fought harder for that vital inch
Binny pleased to get batting opportunity
Stuart Binny said he got the opportunity to spend some time in the middle against Zimbabwe, something he had not had in his previous ten ODIs
Chigumbura disappointed with side's batting lapse
Zimbabwe captain Elton Chigumbura was disappointed after Zimbabwe failed to chase down a target of 256 against India in Harare, losing by a narrow margin of four runs