Smith and Rudolph set up South Africa's victory

South Africa 174 for 3 (Smith 69, Rudolph 69*) beat Zimbabwe 173 for 8 (Streak 50*, Ntini 4 for 45) by 7 wickets

South Africa warmed up for Saturday's NatWest Series final at Lord's with a confidence-restoring win over Zimbabwe in the first international match at Southampton's new Rose Bowl. Chasing a moderate 173, Graeme Smith and Jacques Rudolph led the way after Makhaya Ntini and Andre Nel put them in a strong position with aggressive bowling on a seaming pitch.

Although South Africa strolled to victory in the end, Zimbabwe at least went out with a bit of a fight, with a stubborn innings from Heath Streak and an early burst from Douglas Hondo.

If anyone needed time at the crease for South Africa ahead of Saturday's final, it was Herschelle Gibbs, but he again fell cheaply, chopping Hondo onto his stumps for 2 (2 for 1). Attempting to force away a short, straight ball off the back foot, Gibbs only managed a thick inside-edge, and the cheer could be heard all the way from England's training camp. Gibbs has had one decent knock of 93 not out in this series - and five other innings adding up to only 15 runs.

In Hondo's next over, Martin van Jaarsveld edged a gentle awayswinger, and Tatenda Taibu took off and clung on to a pearler of a catch high to his right (8 for 2). However, Smith and Rudolph then settled down in a no-frills partnership which calmed the jitters. Smith was content to drop anchor and look for the bad balls, while Rudolph began to free his arms with a few dashing square-cuts as the bowlers tired.

Zimbabwe's Achilles heel - their back-up bowling - again proved to be a weakness, as Andy Blignaut couldn't maintain the pressure Streak and Hondo had created. He bowled too many balls off target and Smith, in particular, cashed in on anything short. The fifty partnership came up off 69 balls, and the batsmen gradually took the sting - and the early enthusiasm - out of the limited attack.

And then they went into overdrive. Smith continued to play his favourite pull-shot whenever he could, and Rudolph took advantage of anything wide, including a towering four off the expensive Richie Sims, who went for 18 in his three overs. Smith soon notched up the ninth one-day fifty of his brief career, and he and Rudolph put on 137, a third-wicket record for South Africa against Zimbabwe in ODIs.

Shortly after Rudolph had eased to his second one-day half-century, Smith launched a square-cut off Travis Friend which Dion Ebrahim did well to cling on to at point (145 for 3). It was a smart catch, the highlight of a good fielding display from Zimbabwe, but the celebrations were muted as they knew the game was up by then.

Not even Streak - talisman, captain, and their one remaining world-class player - could make a difference when he came back. Rudolph promptly smacked him for four over square leg, and Zimbabwe knew it really wasn't their day when Ray Price at third man dropped Rudolph, when he had 61 of his eventual 69 not out.

South Africa may be slightly concerned by their lack of runs at the top of the order, but they will be more pleased with their bowling after impressive performances from Ntini and Nel spelt more batting disappointment for Zimbabwe.

Streak won the toss and said he wanted his batsmen to make good use of the conditions, but it was the South African bowlers who did that. And if it hadn't been for Streak's own undefeated half-century, which included a 54-run partnership with Sims, and a generous helping of 25 extras, it would have been an even more disappointing farewell innings.

Ntini did the early damage with four quick wickets, using his extravagant incutters to good effect. Three of those wickets were caught behind, and the other bowled when Taibu played an exaggerated leave first ball.

Nel then replaced Ntini (7-0-31-4 in his destructive first spell), and he quickly settled in to a probing line and length too. And he soon got his reward when he had both Stuart Matsikenyeri and the durable Dion Ebrahim caught behind by Mark Boucher from full-length legcutters.

Streak and Sims, in only his third ODI, did their best to pick up the pieces as they sedately nudged the bowling around in a mini-revival. However, in keeping with the tone of the innings, just when Zimbabwe had a good thing going, Sims edged a classic Pollock awayswinger to Boucher (128 for 7) after a patient 24. Price hung around for the rest of the innings in support of his captain.

However, Streak could not reproduce his heroics with the ball, and that below-par total was never going to be enough as Zimbabwe bowed out of the 2003 NatWest Series ... and their disappointing England tour.

Freddie Auld is editorial assistant of Wisden CricInfo Ltd.