Incremental gains squandered by Zimbabwe

Abdur Rehman is congratulated after the dismissal of Elton Chigumbura AFP

Disappointment, like many things in life, comes in more than one form. There is the dark, foreboding type which like a bad smell or storm clouds, hangs in the air for too long and spoils a sunny day. And there is the lighter, less serious kind which can be dealt with by masking it in cynicism and humour. Zimbabwean fans' acceptance of their loss to Pakistan was the latter.

They gave each other knowing looks and managed wry smiles and jokes as they watched Zimbabwe's resistance crumble quicker than a pillar of salt. The truth is that the match was considered lost on Friday evening when Younis Khan and Rahat Ali took the target beyond reach. The final day was written off as nothing more than an exercise in time keeping and it became evident the clock had been speeded up as early as the eighth ball of the morning.

Hamilton Masakadza was dismissed before the first coffees had been sipped and when Vusi Sibanda followed nine balls later, Zimbabwe's hopes of batting out a long period were all but stubbed out in those early exchanges.

The possibility of an embarrassingly hefty loss became more real when two first-innings heroes, Malcolm Waller and Sikandar Raza, fell to Abdur Rehman. Both played shots they will, in hindsight, not be happy with - Waller sweeping a flighted ball and Raza pushing forward for turn to a straight one - and their departure underlined the feebleness of Zimbabwe's challenge.

Their preoccupation with the threat Saeed Ajmal would pose on a surface that was keeping low and taking more turn than Hamilton Masakadza seemed to suggest it would when he decided Zimbabwe would bat last, meant they almost forgot about the rest of the attack. Junaid Khan and Rehman had the advantage of surprise and used it well.

Junaid bowled an incisive spell, moving the ball back into the batsmen and startling them with the occasional bouncer while Ajmal kept the batsmen guessing from the other end. By the time they were replaced with Rahat and Rehman, Zimbabwe made the mistake of thinking the pressure was off. Waller, having just hit Rehman for four, had no reason to take him on the very next ball. Similarly Raza, who had been confident against spin throughout, perhaps became overly so.

With the middle order snuffed out, Zimbabwe's quick end was being predicted by everyone including the television crew. They took a media sweepstake from 48 people, including cameramen, technicians and journalists, on when the last wicket would fall. Before lunch was the popular choice.

There were some cheers when Elton Chigumbura played his natural, attacking game but that quickly turned to jeers when he gave Mohammad Hafeez catching practice at slip. Attention turned firmly to the South African rugby team's match against Australia, which was being broadcast in the Centurion Pub at the end of the next over when Ajmal had accounted for both Prosper Utseya and Shingi Masakadza.

Some took farcical solace in the fact that the interval - once considered cricket's only immovable apart from Rahul Dravid - was extended to allow Pakistan to finish Zimbabwe off. At least Zimbabwe had lasted more than a session, they joked to each other. When Tendai Chatara had some fun at the end, with a couple of swipes over midwicket, the noise levels through clapping and whistling were the highest they had been all match.

It was a pity they were tinged with such irony and an even greater pity that on the day more people were able to come to the ground than any other, by virtue of it being a weekend, they saw the home team at their worst. Some of those people have been keeping an eye on Zimbabwe's progress over the match and although they did not want to get their hopes too high, were heartened by what they saw.

For an hour short of four days, Zimbabwe had the better of Pakistan. They managed to shelve their off-field troubles and conjured up a performance with heart. Tinashe Panyangara, Chatara and Shingi Masakadza showed discipline Zimbabwe's bowlers have lacked in the past, Utseya found some turn and there was a middle-order fightback that Zimbabwe have not had in recent times. All that unravelled in the time it took Younis to push on his accelerator pedal and made Zimbabwe's second innings irrelevant.

Long-suffering supporters will remember only that. Incremental gains don't mean much to them because the end result is still the same. At the Centurion Pub, there is nothing to celebrate to. The usual drowning of sorrows will take place before many of them return again next week, hoping for a different outcome but not actually expecting one.

They do not regard the incremental gains as small victories and, unless those can eventually add up to something, one can understand why they dismiss them that way. As far as people at Harare Sports Club are concerned, the only winner from this match apart from Pakistan was commentator Ed Rainsford, who correctly predicted the last man would troop back to the change room at 12:36. He has US$48 to show for it.