They had been beaten, bruised and pushed aside by the South Africans and Australians in the games leading up to today's encounter. More than once they had put themselves in dominant positions, only to succumb to performance anxiety when the going got too hot. When they slipped to 156 for 7 in pursuit of Australia's less-than-modest 209, it appeared that the gathered spectators were going to have to witness the drudgery of yet another defeat snatched from the jaws of victory. Not this time.
As Elton Chigumbura and Prosper Utseya's 55-run stand pulled Zimbabwe out of the mire, the buzz of excitement that rippled through the ground filled the atmosphere with almost tangible electricity that snapped and popped with every run added. It's something that just doesn't fully translate when viewed via a television screen. You had to be here. Mexican waves circled the ground as a thousands-strong orchestra of voices cycled through all the usual war cries and a rendition of the national anthem that would have given you goosebumps no matter where you are from.
With 11 needed from the last four overs, Michael Clarke brought himself on - gammy hamstring and all - for an over-my-dead-body six deliveries, captain to captain. Shuffling in gingerly, Clarke fizzed two balls past the edge of Chigumbura's bat before the Zimbabwe captain slapped a long-hop through extra cover to take his team past 200 - and to the brink of victory. By the time the equation came down to single figures needed from the final 15 deliveries, there was barely a bum on a seat in the stadium (press box included). There hasn't been a crowd of this size here since the T20 finals day back in 2010. Every voice willed Zimbabwe closer, and amid the good-willed excitement there were Australians and Zimbabweans dancing arm in arm at Castle Corner.
The crowd's fervour spurred the batsmen on. Utseya has never in his life played such a bolshy innings, easily outscoring his captain and allowing himself a freeze-framed moment in time as he held his shape for the photographers after smiting the winning runs onto the grass beyond deep midwicket.
Utseya doesn't hit many sixes. He's only managed 16 in 158 ODIs before this one. If he never hits another one, his winning stroke today - crisp, clean and cutting through a hazy spring afternoon - will seal his place in Zimbabwean cricketing folklore. As he played the stroke, a crowd that had been in full voice went totally silent for a split second, perhaps struggling to suspend their disbelief, before roaring their approval in unison. Yes, this is really happening.
Before the ball had hit the ground, the Zimbabwean team was already sprinting onto the field to embrace their comrades. Even Steve Mangongo, a man known for his taciturn manner and sometimes abrasive coaching methods, managed a beaming smile and a bear hug for his captain. Utseya insisted he'd be celebrating tonight, while Chigumbura thought it wise to run such an idea past his coach first. One feels that, for all his bluster, Mangongo will allow his players the luxury of a victory beer, though with this tri-series still very much alive they won't be cutting loose just yet. They could still make the final.
The defining image, though, came after the result had been sealed and the beaming cricketers were strolling across the outfield, soaking in elation and relief. Chigumbura's four-year old son Elroy also wobbled out onto the outfield, throwing his arms around his father's legs before Hamilton Masakadza jogged to his captain's side and lifted the young boy up into the blood-orange light of the setting sun, the barrel-chested batsman and the joyful little boy giggling at each other in the glow. Moments such as these are what sportsmen and women play for. For all their disappointments, the distractions of off-field shenanigans, and the frustration of unfulfilled potential, no-one does against-the-odds wins quite like Zimbabwe. After all they've been through, they earned this one.
Trent Bridge, 1983. Newlands, 2007. Harare Sports Club, 2014. Each of Zimbabwe's three international victories over Australia has added something unique to the narrative of this quintessential underdog cricketing nation.
Peter Rawson was their hero 31 years ago, his pinpoint last over sealing a 13-run win in a match that was all mullets, moustaches and flared flannels. Zimbabwe's next success against the Australians, at the World T20, also came down to the wire with Brendan Taylor flicking the second last ball of the match to the fine-leg boundary as the heavens opened over a floodlit Newlands.
This afternoon's three-wicket victory never got quite that close, and the match was sealed with two overs remaining, but it is arguably the most remarkable of all given the circumstances in which it came about. There's something even more rare than Zimbabwe's uncommon victories against cricket's more fancied sides: a Zimbabwean fightback.