Mountaineers surged to the top of the points table with an easy 22-run victory over Desert Vipers in the sixth round of Twenty20 games at Harare Sports Club. Chasing 173 to win, Vipers were well on target until a middle-order slump ruined their chances, with victory for Mountaineers virtually certain after Timycen Maruma and Natsai Mushangwe ripped through the Vipers line-up.
Vipers made a flying start to their innings despite Gerrit Rudolph's early exit, with Raymond van Schoor slashing riskily at everything near off stump - but with a mammoth total to chase down it was a necessary policy. Mountaineers' bowling and fielding were not up to their usual standard and Vipers raced to 52 for 1 in the first five overs.
Van Schoor unluckily played on to Greg Smith for 33, but Craig Williams and Dwaine Pretorius kept the momentum going with a brief but productive stand of 37. But then Mushangwe, the legspinner, and Maruma, the googly bowler, were brought on and three quick wickets fell, reducing Vipers to 97 for 5 in the 13th over. They rallied briefly, but a fine catch by Donald Tiripano to remove Tobias Verwey for 11 was the deathblow to Vipers' hopes.
Christi Viljoen hit some lusty blows in his unbeaten 19 as Vipers eventually reached 150 for 9, but Mountaineers' total was never in any real danger. Despite the ease of their victory, Mountaineers' performance was not flawless, however, and they will have to get back to their usual standard in order to maintain their position at the top of the log.
One thing Mountaineers will be happy with is the continued good form of Hamilton Masakadza, who is the tournament's leading scorer with 237 runs, including a century against Southern Rocks, at a strike rate of 151.92. He overcame difficult conditions early on to record another half-century in this game, eventually falling for 52.
The weather at the start of the day was overcast and uncertain, and the outfield damp after early-morning rain, but Mountaineers decided to bat anyway. For once there was a little movement for the bowlers off the pitch and in the air, and the opening bowlers Louis Klazinga and Christi Viljoen used up their four-over allocations right at the start. Mountaineers' openers, Masakadza and Bernard Mlambo, were unable to start as quickly as usual, but they survived and kept the score moving with quick running to bring up the 50 in the eighth over.
Masakadza then unleashed some savage strokes against the second-string bowlers. He hit four sixes - two of them, over square leg and long on, were massive blows by any standard - and by the time Mlambo was dismissed for 24 the score was 81 for 1 in the tenth over. Masakadza was bowled hitting across the line at Williams, but Maruma and Stuart Matsikenyeri ensured Mountaineers were able to set a match-winning target.
In the second match of the day, Southern Rocks proved that they do not need their openers to carry their batting for them, but neither do they have the bowlers to defend scores and win matches. Once again they posted a highly respectable total, 177 for 4, only to find themselves unable to defend it against Mid West Rhinos. Outstanding innings by Craig Ervine and Alester Maregwede were topped by a brilliant unbeaten 86 from Riki Wessels, who took Rhinos to victory with ten balls to spare.
Rhinos won the toss and decided to field, opening the bowling with Darren Stevens' medium pace. It was a successful tactic as taking the pace off the ball and pitching it up was enough to throw the renowned Rocks opening pair off their game. Stevens removed Chamu Chibhabha in his second over for 7, hitting across the line, while at the other end Sikandar Raza hit the faster Mike Chinouya for two successive fours and was then bowled for 14.
With the openers gone cheaply for a change, it seemed the crucial partnership was now that between Steve Tikolo and Sean Ervine. But yet another confused run out did for Tikolo, while Ervine played some superb flowing strokes but then threw his wicket away, lofting Ollie Rayner straight into the hands of wide long on to depart for 23 off 13 balls.
Then came a magnificent unbroken partnership of 113 between the younger Ervine - Craig - and Maregwede, who both played their best innings of the tournament, although a couple of difficult dropped chances helped them. Both faced 36 balls, with Maregwede reaching 48 and Ervine 62, while they hit six sixes between them to take Rocks to a total that had not seemed possible after their poor start.
In reply, Rhinos lost Vusi Sibanda in the first over for 4, but Wessels swiftly stepped into the breach, pulling, cutting and driving with power and certainty. Brendan Taylor gave him good support, and Wessels continued to profit after being dropped on the midwicket boundary just after reaching his half-century.
Taylor chipped Chibhabha to Blessing Mahwire to depart for 28, and after Bothwell Chapungu's brief cameo was ended by Raza, Wessels was joined by Stevens. He cracked an unbeaten 43 from only 20 balls to seal the game and send Rhinos into the top three on the points table.