Winning the toss and electing to bat first, Zimbabwe threatened to make good their skipper's threat of putting a 450-plus score on the board. However, a threat alone, without a show of force, is never worth much. Just when the support cast decided to click, the lead actor dropped out. Without a big knock from Andy Flower, it was evident that there was no way Zimbabwe would do better than their eventual 248/8. No disrespect at all to Stuart Carlisle and his fighting 77, though; he did his bit admirably.
Zaheer Khan, fresh from his consecutive 10-wicket hauls in domestic cricket, generated good pace on a wicket that is better suited to a game of clay-court tennis than three seamers charging in and trying to snuff out defensive batsmen. Flat, dry, and with cracks that threaten to open up and beckon to the tweakers from as early as the morning of the third day, this is a standard Nagpur wicket.
To his credit, the Baroda left-arm seamer made the best use of what little movement there was early on before using the old ball to reverse-swing prodigiously. Bowling from over the wicket to the right-handers, Zaheer Khan managed to get a good angle going away from the batsmen, ending the day with figures of 3/45. Anil Kumble, a bit lucky at times, backed up well, taking 3/72.
Nasser Hussain, in England's recent tour of India warned of "turgid cricket." Carlisle has said to the press that he wanted to "attack like the English." He means it. Despite a lot of people writing off Zimbabwe, Carlisle the batsman took his job very seriously indeed. Maybe there were no flashing drives, no powerful horizontal bat shots, and the spectators may have been less than thrilled with Carlisle's approach, but it did the visitors a world of good.
Carlisle, living upto the new-found responsibility of being captain, showed that he was not overawed by the reputation of India being tigers at home, and he certainly is not alone in that respect in this Zimbabwean team. The Royal Bengal, thus, looks to be highly endangered, struggling to survive these days. Hitting tweaker Harbhajan Singh over long-on for a six was only the icing on the cake - a wholesome, sumptuous one, rather than the rich kind associated with flat batting wickets.
Keen to stick around in the middle, Carlisle negotiated the swinging old ball with care until a comedy of errors sorted him out. The visiting captain edged an off-break from Harbhajan Singh, only for keeper Deep Dasgupta to grass the catch. The batsmen should never have contemplated a single. Never run off a misfield, they say; but perhaps in Zimbabwe, they do not have any old sayings about running off dropped catches. Before Carlisle could make the 22 yards to safety at the bowler's end, Shiv Sunder Das had fired the ball across for the bowler to whip off the bails, saving his East Zone colleague the blushes. A captain's knock of 77 (204 b, 10x4, 1x6) came to a sorry end.
Aside from Carlisle's knock, there were two events that Zimbabwean scribes can write home about. Depending on whom you support, and whether you want the good news or the bad news first, here they are.
"Flower blooms," "Andy blossoms," "Indian bowlers wilt" and similar horticultural headlines were dashed by a searing in-swinging yorker from Zaheer Khan. Andy Flower's 3 will please the Indians no end. Nightmares of the last series, when Flower averaged an uber-Bramanesque 270, will slowly recede into the background.
The good news for Zimbabwe was the tidy half-century that Alistair Campbell helped himself to. Batting with elan, the tall left-hander timed the ball sweetly to the fence on nine occasions. On 57, Campbell must have had visions of another century at Nagpur. After scoring a boundary and a brace, with the adrenaline running high, Campbell slapped a cover drive to VVS Laxman at short cover. The sharp catch was held, and Zimbabwe had lost their second wicket.
That apart, the batting card did not make healthy reading Trevor Gripper, Gavin Rennie, Grant Flower, Heath Streak and Tatenda Taibu all failed to reach even 25.
Travis Friend provided some welcome entertainment towards the end, thrashing the ball around to all parts to reach 33 off just 31 balls with six hits to the fence. In doing so, he injected some life into Zimbabwe's batting display. That might have brought a smile to the Zimbabwe camp, but it will not be enough to take the visitors to a comfortable score in this Test match.