That Lasith Malinga was hapless in the field and dropped a regulation overhead catch at short fine-leg in the wake of a spat with his country’s Sports Minister would have been a talking point in Sri Lanka. That Sri Lankan cricketers desperately need to reduce their bellies to match contemporary fielding standards might have been the highlight of the country’s primetime news. But the fact that Zimbabwe are the first team to chase a 300-plus total in Sri Lanka must have eclipsed everything.
Zimbabwe are in Sri Lanka for five ODIs and a Test these days and they were greeted with a 317-run target in their first outing of the tour on Friday. To the surprise of many, they chased it to perfection. What in all likelihood would have been a bumpy ride turned out to be a stroll in the park.
The Zimbabwean innings had all the ingredients required to chase at more than run a ball.
At a time when 350 is the new 275, surmounting a score in excess of 300 has remained elusive in Sri Lanka in the last 32 attempts. 289 for four was the previous highest ever total chased down on its soil in 2009, when the legendary batsman Mahela Jayawardene scored a 140-ball 123 to seal the five-match ODI series 3-0 against Pakistan in the third match.
An ODI chase is about breaking down the target into smaller achievable tasks, keeping wickets in hand, and finding the right balance between the dots and the balls on which runs are scored. Though helped by the Lankan fielding lapses, Zimbabwe ticked all the right boxes.
With their veteran batsman Hamilton Masakadza back in the pavilion in the third over and Malinga and Nuwan Pradeep hurling two new balls from either end, Zimbabwe needed to see off the new ball. Doing the required, Zimbabwe gathered 37 runs at 4.6 per over until Angelo Mathews introduced his first bowling change in off-spinner, Akila Dananjaya, in the eighth over. They ate whopping 31 dots out of the total of 48 balls in the time frame and struck just three fours, the first came off Malinga’s misfield on the last ball of the second over.
With the sun out and a pristine Galle wicket promising help to his side, Solomon Mire, playing his 18th ODI, came through. Ask any cricket expert and they will talk about about the necessity of one of the top-three to score big to set or achieve a high total. Mire, who had two reprieves on 17 and 94, rose to the occasion to score his maiden ODI century and set up a brilliant 161-run stand for the third-wicket with Sean Williams.
Mire couldn't have picked a better day to score his maiden ODI century - AFP
During this phase, Zimbabwe upped the scoring rate despite nearly 37 per cent of the balls being dot. The 133-ball partnership had begun in the 11th over when the touring party required approximately seven per over but scored at a shade above four. By the time Mire was caught-and-bowled off Asela Gunaratne in the 33rd over, Zimbabwe scored at the required run rate of 6.40.
Mire and Williams ran for half of the partnership runs – 46 ones, 11 twos, and three threes - and struck 18 boundaries. Zimbabwe, overall, ran 165 runs, which was 51.2% of their total score of 322.
Another aspect that stood out in the chase was Zimbabwe’s reliance on sweeps to counter spin in the wicket. With only two genuine fast bowlers in the opposition lineup, Zimbabwe swept – regular and reverse – 47 balls and piled up 79 runs from them. Mire scored 33 of those. Sri Lanka, on the other hand, scored just 25 from the same shots.
There were scares of a collapse when Mire and Williamson fell within five balls from 32.3 to 34.2 overs. But a belligerent 102-run fifth-wicket stand between Sikandar Raza Butt and Malcolm Waller ensured that Zimbabwe register their first win over Sri Lanka in any format on the island.
Six Zimbabwean batsmen batted and three scored more than 65, with one scoring a century. There was a 40 also. You don’t get to see such performances from Zimbabwe. Perhaps, with Afghanistan and Ireland coming through, Zimbabwe have gotten out of their slumber. They used to send chills down the top nations in the early 2000s and this batting performance promises the return of that Zimbabwe. Surmounting 317 against Sri Lanka in Sri Lnaka is no mean task. But, until they pull off such batting consistently, it is hard to reckon them as a serious cricketing force.
Often teams try to slog their way out of trouble when they lose an early wicket or see their set batsmen depart one after the other. Zimbabwe struck just one six in the match. That also on the last ball. Butt charged down the wicket to hammer Amila Aponso down the ground. With 14 balls still remaining, there wasn’t a need for the six. Or perhaps there was. Only a flashy ending could have announced the comprehensive run-chase.
The writer tweets @ahsannagi