Zimbabwe let it slip by inches, again
If Zimbabwe have an Achilles heel, it's their inability to maintain sustained pressure once they've assumed a position of dominance over the opposition. In this match, India fought harder for that vital inch
Cricket, like life, or even like American football if we're listening to Al Pacino in Any Given Sunday, is a game of inches. Because the margin for error is so small. A couple of inches either way, and a pinpoint yorker becomes a full toss, or a half-volley. In this keenly contested match, India fought harder for that vital inch.
Perhaps it all came too easily for Zimbabwe when they won the toss and had India against the ropes. Perhaps they stopped fighting for that inch. If Zimbabwe have an Achilles heel, it's their inability to maintain sustained pressure once they've assumed a position of dominance over the opposition.
The Zimbabwe seamers made the most of a fresh pitch and a hard, new pill this morning but then allowed India to recover from 87 for 5 to 255 for 6. That this is a perennial problem, and has been for some time, only makes things all the more frustrating. Too often, Zimbabwe allow the opposition to wriggle off the hook, only to then wriggle onto it themselves.
"I think if we're being critical, between overs 30 and 40 that's where we gave too many runs," conceded Elton Chigumbura. "Then they got back into the game." Once India got themselves back, courtesy a 160-run stand between Ambati Rayudu (who now averages 112.5 in Zimbabwe with 225 runs in four innings, two of them unbeaten, and must surely be pencilling himself in for India's next tour here) and Stuart Binny, they stayed ahead and Zimbabwe were left chasing the game. The country's ODI history is littered with such examples. Indeed, having stunned the cricket-watching world by beating Australia in their very first ODI back in 1983, Zimbabwe then somehow let India escape from the seemingly doomed position of 17 for 5 a couple of matches later. Barely a series has gone past since without the team assuming, and then losing, a winning position.
More recently, Zimbabwe started their 2015 World Cup campaign by reducing the mighty South Africans to 83 for 4 in the 21st over. Yet South Africa reached 339 without losing another wicket, and opening bowlers Tinashe Panyangara and Tendai Chatara, having taken a combined 2 for 28 in their opening 10 over spell, had their figures ruined, finishing with 1 for 73 and 1 for 71 respectively. The damage wasn't nearly as bad today, but it hinted at a similar problem: Zimbabwe are still searching for the killer instinct they need to get teams down and then keep them there.
Despite the new regulations allowing five fielders outside the circle, Zimbabwe conceded 90 in their last ten overs. India weren't far behind, giving away 78, but their bowlers got it right at the crucial moment and Bhuvneshwar Kumar denied Elton Chigumbura the chance to turn his second consecutive century into a match-winning one.
"I wouldn't say they gave us the game, but I think Bhuvneshwar Kumar bowled an excellent over in the last one," Binny said. "It's not easy to defend eight or ten in the last over. He landed every ball on the spot. And that's exactly what we've been practising before we came here - to improve our death bowling. And that's exactly what we did today."
Kumar fought for the inch and his team came out ahead - just. Zimbabwe are an improving team, balanced and bursting with talent. But if they're going to start winning tight contests such as these more often, if they're going to knock teams down and keep them there, they need to find their fight. And maybe a little Al Pacino-style inspiration in their lives: "The inches we need are everywhere around us. They're in every break of the game. Every minute. Every second. On this team we fight for that inch."
Liam Brickhill is a freelance journalist based in Cape Town