Zimbabwe probably forfeited their place in the Coca Cola Cup final when they lost to India by four wickets at the Queen's Sports Club in Bulawayo on Wednesday. They put up a spirited fight against a rather below-par Indian team, but luck was definitely against them on this day.
First, they suffered a serious body blow with the withdrawal of captain Heath Streak due to an abdominal strain. For the third successive match, Zimbabwe had a different captain. Guy Whittall took over the reins for the first time but the home team were without their two world-class players as Andy Flower is still injured. India, for their part, were without the injured VVS Laxman.
Cricket did its usual job of attracting the rain overnight, and although the morning dawned clear, the start of the match was delayed for 15 minutes to ensure that parts of the field had dried out. Although the pitch was hard and firm, it had quite a bit of grass and was slightly damp on top, so once again it was a very important toss to win.
And once again the inflexible rule stands: if the toss is important, Zimbabwe will lose it. Sourav Ganguly had no hesitation in putting Zimbabwe in to bat again.
Zimbabwe lost Campbell (2) almost immediately, driving Zaheer Khan straight to mid-off without employing any footwork. In the same over Stuart Carlisle (0) played back to a superb full-length delivery that cut back sharply and trapped him lbw. At 7 for two, it looked like the same old story for Zimbabwe. Khan's wickets, though, came off rare good balls in an erratic spell that conceded a number of extras. Ashish Nehra was similarly profligate.
The first four only came in the tenth over, when Craig Wishart cracked Khan past mid-off. Dion Ebrahim, though far from fluent, hung on and survived three chances, two difficult and one a simple return catch to Ajit Agarkar, before reaching double figures. Gradually he found his touch, and he and Wishart produced a splendid fighting partnership for Zimbabwe.
Wishart (46) spoilt a fine innings with a tame catch to mid-off off Ganguly to make Zimbabwe 94 for three. The 100 came up in the 28th over, but Ebrahim (42) fell soon afterwards, lbw hitting across the line to Khan, who was reaping unexpected dividends from erratic bowling. He finished with rather flattering figures of four for 43.
With the end of the innings in sight, Grant Flower and Whittall struggled to keep the score moving at an acceptable rate. Khan struck again to have Flower (45) caught at mid-off just as they were coming to terms with their task. Andy Blignaut hit 11 off nine balls before being well caught at long-on by Harbhajan Singh off Agarkar from a huge skier, while Whittall ran to his fifty off 52 balls.
As many as 85 runs came in the final ten overs. Whittall finished on 58 and Zimbabwe ended with the fighting total of 234 for six. India had caused to be disappointed with the inability of their bowlers to exploit the conditions - 28 extras were conceded - but against an attack without Streak they were still considered favourites.
India began slowly, but in Blignaut's third over Ganguly unleashed two handsome drives for four, one through the covers and the other straight. It was not until the tenth over, though, that he reached double figures for the first time in an international match on this tour. Tendulkar (9) fell first this time, caught low in the covers off Strang when playing an uppish drive; he seemed strangely out of touch on this occasion.
Strang, ignored by the selectors until Streak's temporary resignation led to a change in policy, was to keep the Indians quiet with an opening spell of eight overs for 16 runs, but none of the other bowlers was able to exert similar pressure. Zimbabwe fielded heroically but were unable to stem the tide as India accelerated. Then Mongia (37) swung David Mutendera to square leg and was superbly taken by Whittall; India were 91 for two in the 26th over.
Ganguly reached his fifty by hammering Whittall for a four to long-on and then swung him over midwicket for six. Rahul Dravid too batted aggressively against bowlers not consistent enough to drag them out of their comfort zone, and this pair steadily took Zimbabwe out of the game. The end appeared to be in sight when Ganguly (85) was caught on the midwicket boundary off Flower for an innings that to him must have been like a welcome downpour after a drought. In the same over Hemang Badani was bowled by the first ball he faced.
Dravid reached 50 off 44 balls, whereupon Flower had Shewag (2) caught at long leg and then caught and bowled Sameer Dighe for 9. India were 210 for six in the 46th over and a good finish was still possible. But without Streak, Zimbabwe had no strike bowler and Dravid (72 not out) took them home comfortably with four balls to spare, aided by some lusty blows from Agarkar (13 not out). Flower's four for 44 was his best one-day return.