Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent
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The flicker that could be seen from close range in the Zimbabwe players' eyes during the lead-up to this Test was exactly what it was suspected to be: anxiety of what awaited them when they faced the world's best. Brendan Taylor can admit that now that his team have defied expectations of being walkovers after they put up as tough fight.
"We were quite nervous in the beginning, to be honest with you, knowing that they were bringing their three-pronged pace attack" Taylor said. "But I'm happy with the guys. They held their own. For three days we were competitive and we fought hard."
Zimbabwe showed their willingness to front up from the first morning when Taylor opted to bat first despite knowing Harare Sports Club's reputation for offering a bit to the bowlers early on.
Taylor's line-up took on Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel with stoic determination and the knowledge that at least the trio would not be able to count on the surface for too much assistance. "We didn't give them the wicket that they wanted," Taylor said. "But it was still very challenging."
A dry, abrasive surface, however, threw up other hurdles such as sharp turn during the first morning, and reverse-swing later on. This meant that the batsmen could not get comfortable and that feeding on scraps was always going to be Zimbabwe's main strategy.
"It was never easy but it was manageable," Taylor said. "Even though the wicket was quite slow paced when Dale Steyn starts reversing, he is quick through the air so it doesn't matter how slow the pitch is."
Zimbabwe only really experienced the wrath of a fired up Steyn on the fourth day when the seamer led the post-lunch assault that ultimately proved to be the hosts' undoing. Five wickets fell for 26 runs in 10 overs, sending Zimbabwe tumbling from 98 for 2 to 124 for 7, and threatened to subject them to an innings defeat.
Although there was not much Mark Vermeulen could do about the inswinger that trapped him on the front pad, Taylor was disappointed with the way some of the other batsmen unravelled during the collapse.
"There were a couple of soft dismissals there. We could have cashed in and made it a lot better for our team," Taylor said. Vusi Sibanda offered Dane Piedt a simple return catch, Taylor himself popped one up to short leg and Regis Chakabva left one he should have watched more carefully. Those were three dismissals Taylor felt could have been avoided had Zimbabwe "hung in there and put prices on our wickets."
Zimbabwe had a lesson on how to do that from South Africa on the second and third day when the likes of Faf du Plessis and JP Duminy played with the self-denial of monks. Their approach, which moved between blocking and leaving, was also the result of Zimbabwe having their best period in the game.
Their seam bowlers lack the pace, bounce and bite of any of South Africa's pack but they operated within their limitations to deny the world's No.1 team the satisfaction of a steamroll.
The respect South Africa showed to Zimbabwe's attack did not go amiss and Taylor recognised that would only serve his men well in future.
"Our seamers were exceptional. Tinashe didn't get hit for a boundary in 30 overs in the first innings - that's a huge plus. Tendai Chatara backed him up well and even Donald bowled some really good deliveries," he said. "This will give them a lot of belief that they restricted two of the best batsmen in the world in AB de Villiers and Hashim Amla."
Chatara, who is just 23 years old and has only played five Tests, accounted for Amla while debutant John Nyumbu could count AB de Villiers among his five wickets. Both men will be an important part of Zimbabwe's future plans. Overall, Taylor was pleased with the lessons he could take away from Harare.
"A debut five-for is fantastic by anyone's standards," he said. "John looked like he'd been playing Tests for a couple of years. He was very responsible and thought his plans through. His line and length will only get better the more he plays."
A statement like that only leads to the inevitable lamenting of how lean Zimbabwe's international calendar is and how seldom they play against top teams. It also means that when they do, they want to show their best side and Taylor does not believe they managed that entirely. "I wanted to go five days. I felt we were good enough to do that," he said. "If we had a better session after lunch we might have done that."
But those post-mortems can be conducted in the days and weeks to come. Tonight, Taylor knows that even though Zimbabwe did not win, they have a reason to celebrate and the only thing their eyes need to do is smile.
"For guys that haven't played a lot of cricket, we can be very proud of 80% of the cricket we played."