Sri Lanka, much like Team India, are ‘home tigers’. Out of the 247 ODIs played at home, the Lankans have won 148 and lost just 78 – a win ratio of 60 percent. On the other hand, the Islanders have been poor visitors, winning only 226 of the 553 away matches.
When underdogs Zimbabwe toured Sri Lanka for a five-match ODI series and a solitary Test match, the home fans would have expected their team to easily add five more wins to their impressive home tally. However, that was not going to be the case this time.
David triumphed over Goliath. The Chevrons led by Graeme Cremer trounced the Lions 3-2, on their own turf. Throughout the ODI series, Zimbabwe looked like the team of the mid 90s and early 2000s, when they made stronger teams toil for a victory.
In fact, Zimbabwe’s upset victory over Sri Lanka was their first against a Test-playing nation away from home since 2001, since the Heath Streak-led team beat New Zealand 2-1 and blanked Bangladesh 3-0.
Zimbabwean batsmen rise to the occasion
When the inexperienced Zimbabwean bowling line-up let the hosts pile up 317 runs in the first ODI, it seemed the contest all but over for the visitors. But opener Solomon Mire's career best 112, along with valuable contributions Sikandar Raza, Sean Williams and Malcolm Waller guided Zimbabwe to an astonishing win.
While the second ODI was comfortably won by Sri Lanka, the third match of the series turned out to be another high-scoring encounter. Batting first, the Chevrons went past the 300-run mark for the second time in the series on the back of veteran Hamilton Masakadza’s 111 off 98 balls. However, the bowlers once again failed as Lankan openers Niroshan Dickwella and Dhanushka Gunathilaka added a 229-run opening stand to set up an easy win for the hosts.
Bowlers finally prove their mettle
With two back-to-back wins for the hosts, Zimbabwe looked set for another series defeat. The fourth ODI too began on a poor note for the visitors after openers Dickwella and Gunathilaka raced to 209. The Islanders looked set for a huge total. Fortunately for the visitors, their bowlers came to the party in the final 15 overs to restrict Sri Lanka to just 300-6.
The target still looked huge for the Zimbabweans to surmount. However, the rain gods intervened in favour of the visitors as the target was revised to 219 runs in 31 overs. Thanks to Craig Ervine's 69*, the team chased down the total to level the series.
The stage was set for the final showdown in the 5th ODI at Hambantota.
Electing to bowl first, Raza and Cremer spun a web around the Lankan batsmen as the duo only gave away 44 runs in their 20 overs, while taking five wickets. Eventually, the Islanders could only post 203-8 in 50 overs.
Masakadza and Mire began well, putting on 92 for the first wicket. But once Mire fell for 43, wickets tumbled. At 175-7, Zimbabwe were staring at defeat. But Raza made sure that his team cruised home without further damage. The Pakistani-origin all-rounder also finished it off in style with a six over long-off.
All-round effort in the only Test
The stellar performance of the Zimbabweans continued in the one-off Test. Batting first, visitors posted 356, with Ervine top scoring with 160. Coming on to bowl, Zimbabwe restricted Sri Lanka to 346, thanks to captain Cremer’s fifer.
Enjoying a slender lead of 10 runs, Zimbabwe slumped to 59 for 5, before Raza and Waller rescued the team from the precarious situation. Raza’s 127 and Waller’s 68 helped the visitors post a target 388 for the home team to chase.
In the fourth innings, had the third umpire given the stumping decision in Raza’s favour, Dickwella could not have ganged up with Gunaratne to wreck the inexperienced bowling line-up. Nevertheless, Zimbabwe did well to take the game to the final day.
Zimbabwe’s coming of age tour?
While it is too early to call the short Sri Lanka tour as Zimbabwe's coming of age series, there were many positive signs.
In the ODIs, the openers batted well, while Ervine, Raza and Williams chipped in with crucial runs at critical junctures. The batsmen also kept calm and did not implode under pressure in the first and fifth ODIs, when the match was evenly poised. The bowling department remained a concern in the first three matches, but finally fired as a unit in the remaining two games.
At times, the bowling unit seemed to be the weak link, but Zimbabwe did show competency in the batting department with two 300 plus scores in the ODIs. Zimbabwe also have a long batting line-up extending up to number nine. This batting line-up helped the visitors continue their fight despite losing five early wickets in the second innings. Talented batsmen like Masakadza, Ervine, Williams and Raza have been an integral part of the team for many years now. It is time for them to fire together to salvage Zimbabwe cricket.
The Zimbabweans can look up to the Sri Lankans for some inspiration. In the late 70s and early 80s, the Islanders were the underdogs of international cricket. However, with the entry of talented players like Arvinda De Silva, Sanath Jayasuriya, Chaminda Vaas and Muttiah Muralitharan, Sri Lanka soon became world beaters. Facing a deadly civil war in the northern and eastern areas of the country, the 1996 World Cup win turned out to be an iconic moment not only in the country’s cricketing but also cultural history.
Zimbabwe is staring at an uncertain future as the country is being isolated at the international level. Cricket too faces a similar fate in the country. The series win in Sri Lanka would have lifted the mood in Zimbabwe but only time will tell whether the 3-2 series win was the beginning of Zimbabwe’s rise to the top.