The Report by Andrew Fidel Fernando
Zimbabwe 204 for 7 (Masakadza 73, Mire 43, Raza 27*, Dananjaya 4-47, Malinga 2-44) beat Sri Lanka 203 for 8 (Gunaratne 59*, Gunathilaka 52, Raza 3-21, Cremer 2-23) by three wickets
They came to Sri Lanka ranked 11th, having been defeated by Scotland in the previous month, and having lost a series to Afghanistan earlier in the year. But bowling with venom, fielding with pep, and batting with intelligence, helped Zimbabwe win the deciding fifth ODI by three wickets in Hambantota, and stun the hosts 3-2. It is their first away series victory since 2009, and one of Zimbabwe cricket’s finest moments ever.
Though their quartet of miserly spinners had trussed Sri Lanka up for 203 in their 50 overs, and though their openers slammed 92 for the first wicket, victory still had to be prised from their opposition on a slowing, turning deck. Zimbabwe were 137 for 1, when a Sri Lanka surge, led by Akila Dananjaya, claimed six wickets for 38.
But as long as Sikandar Raza was at the crease, Zimbabwe’s chances of victory remained good. He survived the last of Dananjaya’s overs, and alongside Graeme Cremer, saw out a burst of swinging Lasith Malinga yorkers. Having been such a high-impact player over the past nine days, perhaps it was also fitting that Raza made the series’ final play. With six to get, he ran down the pitch and deposited Wanindu Hasaranga over the straight boundary to spark elation in the dressing room. His 27 nerveless runs followed an excellent turn with the ball, with which he captured 3 for 27 – two of those wickets having come in the tone-setting first 10 overs.
Hamilton Masakadza capped an outstanding series with an 86-ball 73, Solomon Mire and Tarisai Musakanda made useful batting contributions, and the other spinners – Cremer, Malcolm Waller and Sean Williams – all made important breakthroughs as well. So many in this Zimbawe outfit can take credit for the series triumph – almost every batsman has produced an impactful innings, Tendai Chatara has been reliable, and they have outfielded Sri Lanka too – though that is not the compliment it once was.
Sri Lanka will be left to rue their timidity with the bat – which was brought into sharp relief by Zimbabwe’s openers – and their lack of ambition with the ball in the early overs. Where Raza had been immediately menacing, slowing the ball down, and tossing it tantalisingly up, Sri Lanka’s spinners bowled too quickly through the early overs, when Mire and Masakadza were mowing them down. Even Dananjaya, who later found rhythm and wound up with 4 for 47, went wicketless in his first four overs and conceded 25 runs. In their defence, three of the six main bowlers in this match had played less than 15 ODIs.
For the third time in the series, Chatara took the first Sri Lanka wicket, but it was through Raza’s calculative first spell that Zimbabwe truly applied their tentacles to this innings. He got Kusal Mendis to chip a ball to short midwicket after drawing him down the pitch, then ripped a perfectly-pitched ball past Upul Tharanga’s forward defence to rattle off stump. Where in each of the previous two matches, Sri Lanka put up opening stands in excess of 200, they were 34 for three after 11 overs in this game. Raza had bowled six of those overs, and his two wickets had cost only 11 runs.
No Sri Lanka batsman appeared fluent, but Danushka Gunathilaka was the best of them in the early overs, using his long stride to smother some of the spin that foxed his teammates. Even so, his 47-run fourth-wicket partnership with Angelo Mathews was stilted. Mathews had picked up what seemed to be a groin strain early in his innings, and was unable to take the tight singles and twos that are perhaps at a premium on a pitch such as this. When he was caught at slip for 24, playing a tired drive to Graeme Cremer, Sri Lanka were 78 for 4, and already in serious trouble.
Gunathilaka passed fifty for the fourth time in the series, but then lost concentration, and his wicket. Before long, Sri Lanka were 126 for 7 in the 35th over, and it took an intelligent 59 not out from Asela Gunaratne to help them bat through to the 50th over and put up a serviceable score. He had gelled well with No. 10 batsman Dushmantha Chameera. Together, they mustered 34 off the last four overs – Gunaratne shuffling around the crease to hit square boundaries. Their unbeaten 50-run stand was the best of the innings.
Each of Zimbabwe’s openers survived close calls early: a Lasith Malinga slower ball missing Hamilton Masakadza’s off stump by centimetres, before Solomon Mire successfully overturned an lbw decision against him off Nuwan Kulasekara. But if there were early nerves, they would soon be clobbered into submission.
Sikandar Raza took three wickets before making a vital contribution with the bat to see Zimbabwe through in a tense chase © AFP
Mire biffed three fours and a six off the fourth over – bowled by Kulasekara – and once Zimbabwe were off, it was more or less a Powerplay boundary binge. The batsmen would hit one six apiece, and nine fours in total by the end of the 10th over, many of those hits coming down the ground. At that stage, Zimbabwe had knocked 62 off the total. Though Mire would soon lose his stumps, trying to paddle sweep Gunaratne, a further 40 would come off the next six overs, and Zimbabwe would be halfway to the winning score.
Malinga’s dismissal of Masakadza in the 24th over seemed a mere bump at the time, with so much batting to come, but bowling to left-handers now, flight, dip and rip returned to Dananjaya’s game, and he threatened to derail the chase. He first had Craig Ervine lbw, had Williams caught at short midwicket soon after, had Musakanda holing out to long on, and in his final over, had Peter Moor caught at leg gully. Malinga supported him with a tight spell and the wicket of Waller at the other end, but Zimbabwe could almost taste victory by now.
Raza and Cremer tiptoed onwards through the last of these bowlers’ spells, and saw the team through to a famous victory. Much will be made of Sri Lanka’s failures in the series, but Zimbabwe played some clever and courageous cricket to overturn their hosts.
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo’s Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernando