South Africa staved off a spirited run-chase to complete a successful weekend double-header, beating Zimbabwe by 28 runs in the most competitive match of the series to seal it 3-0. The best crowd of this short one-sided series, sipping their lager and working their grills on a lazy Sunday, witnessed two South Africans get into Twenty20 mode at the Harare Sports Club. Albie Morkel and AB de Villiers laid the platform for a total of 323 for 9 but Tatenda Taibu showed his immense value to this Zimbabwean outfit, scoring an unbeaten 107 to ensure that they came out of this match with their reputation enhanced.
Zimbabwe's run chase, kicked off by Vusi Sibanda and Hamilton Masakadza and highlighted by Taibu, was the most spirited this side has seen in some time. Both openers reserved plenty of contempt for Makhaya Ntini during their 76-run stand: Sibanda, arguably Zimbabwe's best batsman off the back foot, set the tone with early fours off him and welcomed him back into the attack later with swats over square leg. In the next over, Ntini looked on as Masakadza hit three in a row, all off the back foot, through cover, midwicket and over mid-on.
Both Sibanda and Masakadza fell in quick succession but their stand allowed Taibu the confidence to come out blazing. He kept up the momentum with some positive shots all around the pitch and played what might have been the innings of his career; his was the hand that guided the ship through the choppy waters, as he hardly played a false shot. His fifty took 43 balls and he then added 109 for the third wicket with Brendan Taylor (43). Crucially, Taibu cashed in on Thandi Tshabalala's tendency to serve up at least one four-ball an over.
At 210 for 3 Tshabalala tossed one up on leg stump and Taylor hit it to a diving Jean-Paul Duminy at midwicket. Elton Chigumbura, promoted to No. 5 for his ability to hit the long ball, hit a second-ball six but fell to Graeme Smith's ploy to post a man at deep square leg. Sean Williams was run out and Zimbabwe needed 93 from the last ten overs.
Taibu added 35 with Stuart Matsikenyeri in good time but with the run-rate hovering near 12 Zimbabwe needed big shots. Matsikenyeri failed to clear long-on off Shaun Pollock (271 for 6) and Ntini send Gary Brent back for one. The match was well out of Zimbabwe's reach by now but the home crowd cheered loudly as Taibu completed his maiden hundred.
The early loss of their openers didn't prevent South Africa, playing with only five specialist batsmen, from launching a platform for an imposing total. de Villiers and Morkel were the men to do so with an explosive 186-run partnership. In a destructive innings that showed why he's been earmarked as the new Lance Klusener, Albie - in his 12th match - doubled his previous ODI aggregate. He was promoted to No. 3 with Loots Bosman flying home after injuring himself yesterday and was at ease in the role.
Confident off both front foot and back foot, Albie also looked a natural six-hitter. His first six was a heave off Timycen Maruma rows back over long-on and Masakadza was then carted back over his head. de Villiers had been positive from the word go, driving twice in succession for four to open his account, but wasn't as fluent as his partner initially.
Once both batsmen had passed fifty, however, it became a race to see who'd get to their hundred first. de Villiers took the initiative, hitting Sean Williams for 22 in one over before thumping Prosper Utseya out of the ground thrice, but Albie wasn't about to be left behind. The spinners were taken apart in brutal fashion with Albie sending Utseya into the car park and Mazakadza into the adjacent tennis courts.
Albie fell agonisingly short of a deserved hundred as he chased a wide delivery from Masakadza and the thin edge was snapped up by Taibu, but de Villiers made sure to complete his ton. His sixth six brought up a hundred from 84 balls but he fell soon after, slogging Gary Brent down to long-on for 107.
Zimbabwe struck back at the death, thanks to some good catches and poor shots, but that total of 323 proved enough in the end.
Jamie Alter is an editorial assistant on Cricinfo