The fifth one-day international against Sri Lanka was one Zimbabwe had to win. They had already lost three successive matches to Sri Lanka, and another would have completely destroyed their credibility with the public in Zimbabwe, who had become disillusioned with the succession of defeats and disappointing performances from players who have done far better in the past.
Fortunately the players themselves didn't see it that way. To them, the series was lost so the pressure was off. In a more relaxed frame of mind, they played better and so won their first match of any kind against a Test-playing nation since the victory over South Africa in the World Cup.
They might well have done so the previous day. They put up an outstanding batting performance, thanks mainly to Stuart Carlisle, a fringe player for several seasons who finally came good when given a chance to show what he could do near the top of the order instead of his usual seven or eight. He scored a brilliant century, Andy Flower recorded Zimbabwe's fastest fifty in one-day internationals, and for once the Zimbabwean bowlers had a large total to bowl against.
Perhaps the shock or the excitement was too much for them. Whatever the reason, they put in one of their worst bowling displays of the season. Until then, they had performed nobly with little experience and many of their top players missing. Now that they had their best chance, Sod's Law took effect and they turned in their worst performance. Poor length, poor direction, and Sri Lanka got off to a cracking start and never looked back. Zimbabwe never looked like containing them enough to win that match.
It was all the more disappointing as Eddo Brandes, after a fine Test contribution was followed by omission from the first three one-day matches, played his first game of the series and could have been expected to revitalise this bowling attack as he had done in the Test. Sadly he was nowhere near his Test form and was unable to lead the attack from the front as he did then. It may well prove to be his last international appearance, as rumour has it that he plans to retire after being omitted from the squad to tour South Africa. We will keep readers informed, but hope he does not make any premature decision; squads can very easily change before tours take place.
Zimbabwe had chosen to bat on winning the toss again, after their failures batting second. They were prepared to risk the usual early life in the pitch, which always seems to be there however good the pitch itself. Both matches enjoyed good batting pitches, although Grant Flower did get a real snorter early on which ended the only Zimbabwean opening partnership of the five-match series of less than 50. He and Alistair Campbell did a fine job throughout in laying the foundation, but it was disappointing that not once was either of them able to go on and play that really big innings that was crucial, as did Stuart Carlisle.
So well did Carlisle and Andy Flower bat in partnership that the Zimbabwean aim of 230 was translated into 260. They had batted slowly early on, scoring at little more than three runs an over for most of the innings, until this pair launched a blistering assault on the bowling in the final 15 overs.
Then the bowlers threw it away, but the fielders helped. The Sri Lankan fightback was led by Romesh Kaluwitharana, who particularly enjoyed the pull and cut off short-pitched bowling, but he might have been run out early on had Brandes, at the end of his follow-through, not intercepted a throw-in that should have left him stranded in mid-pitch after a mix-up. The little wicket-keeper then hammered his way to a superb 99. Jayawardene also batted very well after a slow start, and the bowlers were never able even to put Sri Lanka under pressure.
For many of the public this may have been the last straw, as the crowd the following day was to be probably the smallest seen at a Sunday one-day international in Harare for many years. Many bitter words had been spoken by spectators the night before after that defeat. That final victory was just in time and enabled the team and its supporters to finish the year on a happy and relieved note.
For the first time in the one-day series Andy Flower lost the toss - ironic that the only time this should happen, Zimbabwe should go on to win! At least during this series Zimbabwe could have no complaints about bad luck: four tosses won out of five and pretty even luck with the umpiring. But after all the tribulations of the last few months it took them until the final match to get it all together again.
Sri Lanka left out three of their top bowlers for this match - Vaas, Wickramasinghe and Muralitharan - but that didn't affect their batting, which for the first time on tour failed to find a saviour when in difficulty. In fact, it probably didn't affect their bowling much either, as the replacements were fresh and very eager to impress; as Murray Goodwin says, they were all good bowlers.
The Zimbabwean bowlers looked altogether different from the previous day as they found line and length, and gave little away from start to finish. Again Jayasuriya fell early, and again to John Rennie, although there was some controversy about his dismissal, given out caught behind down the leg side. Heath Streak has been his nemesis on many occasions; now, with Streak absent, he found himself falling the Rennie for the third time in four matches. He had a poor tour with the bat, but as captain, bowler and fielder he played a vital part in one match after another. It was ironic, then, that he should drop a crucial return catch from Guy Whittall in this match when the latter was on 2, which if held might have turned the match, given the fragility of the Zimbabwean batting at times.
With 203 needed to win, Campbell and Grant Flower again got Zimbabwe off to a fine start, and at a quicker rate than they had in that disastrous match in Bulawayo when the target was similar. This time they made 94, but once the finger came out of the dyke the whole wall threatened to collapse again. And once more it was one unnecessary dismissal after another: Campbell holed out trying to emulate Grant Flower who hit Jayawardene for two sixes, the Flower brothers both made remarkable miscalculations for such renowned and experienced runners between wickets and were run out, while Carlisle holed out straight to the fielder on the midwicket boundary.
Once again the air was filled with nervous tension. Goodwin's first boundary travelled through the air perilously close to a fielder, while as mentioned above Jayasuriya unusually put down Whittall, who struggled to start with. But both batsmen settled down, paced themselves - they were never under the same pressure to score quickly that they had been in Bulawayo - and saw Zimbabwe home without giving another chance. There were justifiable complaints about the pathetic Sri Lankan over rate, with Jayasuriya spending an interminable amount of time talking to his bowlers and changing his field; hopefully they copped a fine for this blatant gamesmanship, about which the umpires did nothing.
It was Sri Lanka's only defeat of the tour. They proved a more attractive side than their predecessors five years earlier. Their batsmen were more enterprising, and although their order looked fragile at times they always found somebody to bail them out with a major innings until the final game. Russel Arnold and Tillakaratne Dilshan both impressed for potential and determination. Zimbabwe were still very short of batsmen staying in for the long haul.
Sri Lanka had a much more experienced bowling attack this time, and in fact their four main bowlers were the same who had been at the start of their careers on the last tour. They were a superb fielding side who took full advantage of Zimbabwe's nervy running between wickets. They are a good young side in the making and outplayed the home team - which should not have been. Perhaps one day someone will be able to come up with the definitive answer as to why Zimbabwe so badly under-performed. Crucial injuries and lack of first-class preparation were part of the story, but not all. The team which beat South Africa in the World Cup should have been able to handle Sri Lanka.