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Zimbabwe’s moment of glory

Prosper Utseya (left) and Elton Chigumbura put up an unbeaten 55-run stand for the eighth-wicket to guide Zimbabwe to an unlikely victory over Australia © AFP
Prosper Utseya (left) and Elton Chigumbura put up an unbeaten 55-run stand for the eighth-wicket to guide Zimbabwe to an unlikely victory over Australia © AFP

Zimbabwe’s win came as a shock to the cricket fraternity as Australia, considered by many as the potential champions in ICC World Cup 2015, came down with a resounding crash at Harare. Abhishek Mukherjee explains why the result was more than a mere ODI victory for the Zimbabweans.

Somewhere in England, Duncan Fletcher must have been flashing a rare smile. The first ODI between Australia and Zimbabwe (in World Cup 1983) had resulted in an upset victory for the minnows, playing their first international match. None of the players from the historic match at Harare was born when Zimbabwe had won the Trent Bridge encounter: Fletcher, leading the side, had scored 69 not out, picked up four for 42, and was the obvious choice for the Man of the Match.

It was almost déjà vu 31 years later: Elton Chigumbura, leading the side, abstained from bowling on a track that was clearly assisting the spinners. Ten years prior to the match Chigumbura (four for 17) and Tinashe Panyangara (six for 31) had bowled out the Australians for 66 in 19 overs in an Under-19 World Cup encounter at Bogra. Tino Mawoyo had led Zimbabwe in the match, and Brendan Taylor, Prosper Utseya, and Sean Williams were all there.

Chigumbura’s spinners lived up to the challenge, restricting the mighty Australians to 209 for nine before Mawoyo and Sikandar Raza gave the hosts the perfect start. Taylor, hero of many a battle, scored a 26-ball 32, but it seemed to be all over at 156 for seven as Nathan Lyon ran through the Zimbabwe batsmen.

Utseya, whose hat-trick and five-for in the previous match against South Africa had gone in vain, walked out to join his captain. They had only John Nyumbu and Tendai Chatara — none of whom would pass as even a bowler who could bat a bit — still to come.

There was no hurry. They needed 54, but they had 70 balls in which they needed to be scored. Chigumbura had scored 16 ODI fifties before the match: he had been there before; but Utseya? He could hit the ball at times, but would he last against Mitchell Starc, Ben Cutting and the rest?

They had a bigger war to fight, though: they had been ridiculed by the world of cricket for their Test status; Bangladesh, having entered the fray after them, enjoys a more packed schedule; there have already been talks about relegating Zimbabwe and giving Afghanistan and Ireland Test status; all this, a mere eleven years after making it to the Super Sixes in back-to-back World Cups.

Utseya cut Starc hard; he was determined to stay, but he would not let them go. The ball raced to the point boundary. Starc had to change his angle and revert back to over the wicket. Utseya had won the first battle of the day, but certainly not the first of his life.

They had grown up during Robert Mugabe’s regime. They had seen inflation. They had seen racism and discrimination. They had seen industries come down crashing. They had seen travellers — including foreign teams, even during World Cups — declining to visit Zimbabwe.

Today was when they could pay them back. Together they batted on, Chigumbura and Utseya, jaws gritted in determination, towards what would surely silence critics, at least temporarily.

The young, nimble legs ran frantically. They were certainly not the best of batsmen, but they ran skilfully, and they were often too swift for the Australian fielders. With 37 to score from eight overs, Chigumbura cut Mitchell Marsh very, very late past Brad Haddin for four: the pressure was back on Michael Clarke’s men.

Clarke brought back James Faulkner before resorting to Starc, but to no avail. They saw off Starc safely, and the moment Clarke brought mid-on inside the circle Utseya went for it: the ball soared over mid-on’s head for four. Four overs were too much to defend 11.

Clarke knew it. He knew it all. He had rested Mitchell Johnson. He was battling an injury himself. He had to retire hurt during the innings despite his side being in trouble. He had walked out with nine wickets down (that had helped Lyon, of all people, add seven runs to the tally), but he knew it would not be sufficient to silence his critics if Australia lost the match.

So Clarke summoned his trusted partnership-breaker — the man who had almost always provided crucial breakthroughs: he had taken four for 42 at Mumbai, six for nine again at Mumbai, five for 35 at Dambulla, five for 86 at Rosseau, and that three for five at SCG to beat India. Clarke came on himself.

Chigumbura and Utseya knew they had to see him off. There was no disdain shown: the ball turned and bounced viciously, beating Chigumbura’s forward defence twice in the first four balls. The last two balls were cover-driven: they now needed eight from three overs.

Utseya hit hard but could not time it, and George Bailey flung himself at cover and almost came up with a near-impossible catch. The next ball was hit to point. Still no run: eight to score from 16. The tension was unbearable: would the seasoned professional prevail over the inexperienced?

Starc over-pitched, and Utseya swung hard: once again he could not time it, but the ball raced towards square-leg. Chigumbura and Utseya ran like madmen… one… two… three… there were only six to be scored now. Starc, master of the yorker, champion of death-bowling, steamed in to stop Chigumbura.

The first ball was the kind of yorker that has made Starc one of the most feared bowlers in the dying stages of limited-over matches: it was too good for Chigumbura, but he managed to keep it out. Starc ran in again. Will he bowl another yorker? Will he go for the bouncer?

The crowd waited with bated breath. Once again Starc fired one in to the base of the stumps, but somehow — by some inexplicable innovation — Chigumbura managed to play it to third-man. It was the matter of one hit to the fence. They had 13 balls to execute it. Surely they would do it in singles?

But Utseya had other ideas: Starc probably wanted to go for a third yorker, but it did not come out right; Utseya gave it the full throttle as he saw the ball sail over the deep mid-wicket boundary for six, and the young Zimbabweans, with only one of them barely above 30, rushed to the ground to engulf the pair in an embrace. Stephen Mangongo, who had taken a lot of flak after Panyangara’s suspension, was forgiven: he joined the celebration as well.

This will probably remain a one-off victory; Zimbabwe will perhaps not make it big in the World Cup; a couple of years later the win will be remembered only by the statisticians; but the moment of glory, a taste of victory against the favourites, will remain a moment of glory the Chigumburas and Utseyas and Taylors will rejoice for the rest of their lives.

Expectations will rise, the relegation issue will be challenged, but all that can wait: let them, for once, bask in their moment of elusive glory; let them celebrate, let them rejoice; once done, they will regroup and strategise for the future.

Australia (if things go right for them) and South Africa will lock horns for the title, but the hosts have not disgraced themselves at all. If anything, had outliving expectations been the deciding parameter for the tournament, they would have emerged champions.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is the Deputy Editor and Cricket Historian at CricketCountry. He blogs here and can be followed on Twitter here.)

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Nov 23, 2014 (12:00 IST)   at Chittagong

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