HAMILTON – A decade. That’s how long it’s been since Zimbabwe had South Africa four down with the team’s hundred still a way away.
Opportunity beckoned, but David Miller and JP Duminy heard the call louder. Their counterattacking centuries reinforced the skill that runs down this mighty batting line-up, as a score of 83 for four grew into 339 for four and the world record for the fifth-wicket partnership was updated to 256 off 178.
Perhaps Zimbabwe took heart from that. Perhaps the team talk was if their opposition could do that with a poor start, what might happen if the top order stood up to be counted.
Chamu Chibhabha, back after nearly two years in one-day internationals exile, and Hamilton Masakadza, playing his first World Cup in a 13-year career, decided to test the theory.
A refreshing partnership began, but it could only extend to 105, and the ones that followed were cut short before they could pry the match from South Africa’s hands as they won by 62 runs.
Zimbabwe lost it when their bowlers lost it in the final overs. The result was a numbing mix of sixes off over-pitched balls, sixes off full tosses and sixes off short balls.
The wresting of momentum appeared very stark as the fielders began giving up on chasing the ball once it cleared the infield. And those were the lucky ones for Zimbabwe.
Miller tonked one that soared over the square-leg boundary and may well had disrupted the traffic outside the ground. Solomon Mire was the bowler and this was how that over, the 48th of the innings, went: 6, 4, 4, 6, 4, 6 – that’s more than South Africa made in the first 10 overs.
Zimbabwe bowled 23 overs for under six. Eight was the most they had given away until the 37th cost 10. After that, there was a batch of fours between the 45th and 48th that bled 80. While batting, they had been ahead of South Africa’s 262 at the end of the 46th over.
The question of “what if” must be haunting them.
Miller and Duminy, meanwhile, would be sighing in relief. Their firepower should be celebrated and their patience in constructing a suitable launchpad should not be overlooked. There were 69 balls without a boundary in the middle overs before the tap was turned to full.
They blunted some balls that held onto a slow pitch, pinched singles off others to push the run rate higher, and eventually ended up with a score that was nearly a hundred runs more than what they had hoped for.
Duminy was injured when South Africa were knocked out 4-1 in Australia during the lead-up to the World Cup, and today was a measure of how much he contributes to balancing this team.
He matched Miller shot for shot in the final overs, might have been better than his partner at exploiting gaps along the ground, and was building himself a useful reputation as the man South Africa like to have in the latter stages of the innings.
He was 29 off 37, with one lone four after 30 overs. He finished 115 off 100, and improved his boundary count by 11.
A couple of other vital cogs for South Africa did not have the best day. Dale Steyn’s sting was reduced on a slow pitch and Masakadza felt good enough to race down the track and hammer a four to long-off to reach his fifty.
Morne Morkel’s short balls came in with a “tuck in” label so much that Mire blasted one of them powerfully and broke a tree branch behind the midwicket boundary.
These are bowlers that intimidate with reputation. Judging by their figures at the end of the day – Steyn 1 for 64 off nine overs and Morkel two for 49 in 8,2 – Zimbabwe weren’t quite so daunted.
They were, however, less successful against Vernon Philander’s metronomic discipline and Imran Tahir’s quick legbreaks and sharp-turning googlies.
It hadn’t been that long ago that the Zimbabwe flag was aloft, along with a blur of hands. Those that weren’t waving like they just didn’t care, clapped up an infections beat.
The only thing more impressive than the fans’ moves was how an earnest set of bowlers defied the norm to have the South African top order stuttering.
AB de Villiers was uncertain. Although it wasn’t with bat in hand. A slow and dry pitch left him with doubts over what he would do had he won the toss.
Those may have evolved into concern as he watched Zimbabwe exploiting that to get rid of South Africa’s openers.
Second slip became short cover in the third over and the eager-to-drive Quinton de Kock succumbed to Tendai Chatara in the next one as the ball that held on the pitch a bit more.
Hashim Amla’s inside edge conspired against him, the stumps were broken and Tinashe Panyangara had slipped in his follow-through.
That did not stop him from celebrating dismissing a batsman who has amassed 413 runs in his last four matches with a nifty little offcutter – he did so by flopping about like a fish out of water with a giant grin on his face.
It was matched by Craig Ervine as he de Villiers-ed de Villiers in the 21st over with a hokey-pokey catch. He wore a sparkling grin even before the ball had settled in his open palms. The fans kept dancing and the dream seemed to be turning to reality.
Zimbabwe had only ever won two matches against South Africa – one of them in the 1999 World Cup – and historic territory appeared near. But then they were forced to accept a serious flaw in their combination – the lack of a strike bowler in the death.