A fiery spell of swing bowling by left arm seamer Irfan Pathan and a quickfire knock by Mahendra Singh Dhoni enabled India trounce Zimbabwe by 161 runs in the tri-series match at the Harare Sports Club, Harare, on Monday.
Batting first, India laboured to 226 for 6 in their 50 overs after a slow start. The recovery came courtesy some fine batting in the final overs by Dhoni, who scored a breathtaking 56 and was involved in a rapid 103-run partnership for the fifth wicket with Yuvraj Singh, who scored 53.
When Zimbabwe batted, Pathan was unstoppable with the ball as he sent down 10 overs on the trot and claimed 5 for 27. He got good company from Ajit Agarkar, who took 4 for 18 in his nine overs.
The Zimbabwe innings folded for 65 in just 24.3 overs. None of the batsmen crossed 20. Heath Streak, with 18 runs, was the top scorer.
The batting order was changed, a brand new opener tried, still India's struggle for runs continued.
If it was Shane Bond's fiery pace in their first match of the tri-series that had the Indians disjointed, then it was some disciplined bowling by the home side's mediocre bowlers that had them mesmerized on Monday.
Zimbabwe struck in the very first over, getting the wicket of Venugopal Rao, who was asked to open the innings in the absence of Virender Sehwag, who is down with fever.
Rao was dismissed without scoring yet again, as Heath Streak had him caught behind by wicketkeeper Tatenda Taibu off the fifth ball of the innings. (3-1, 0.5 over). In the first match against New Zealand too he failed to get a run to his name.
The spongy bounce at the Harare Sports Club is known to offer a good deal of support to the fast bowlers in the initial part of the match, and it was no surprise to see the hosts elect to field. What was surprising was seeing Rao, playing his fourth match, walking in to open the innings, and then Mohammad Kaif being sent in at number three.
Once again the swing proved too hot to handle, as both Sourav Ganguly and Kaif were caught fishing outside the off-stump on a number of occasions as India crawled to 38 for 1 in 10 overs. With the batsmen still not confident of their footwork, captain Taibu opted to use the second and the third powerplay between the 10th and 20th over.
Ganguly was the second wicket to fall, as he holed a simple catch to Charles Coventry at short fine leg, off Anthony Ireland, after scoring 20 off 28 balls. (55-2, 15.2)
India's captain added 52 runs for the second wicket with Kaif, before gifting his wicket away after a rather subdued innings. Kaif, who enjoyed the majority of the strike, was unbeaten on 28 from 61 balls.
The first 20 overs yielded 72 runs for the loss of two wickets. The startling fact, however, was that the top four batsmen between them had 93 dot balls, which meant that 15.3 overs out of 20 had not been scored from. One of the main reasons for that was the batsmen were not keen on taking quick singles; they only tried to hit boundaries to take advantage of the Powerplay.
The introduction of spin proved beneficial, as off-spinner Prosper Utseya produced a beauty to get rid of Rahul Dravid. The Indian vice-captain was beaten by a quick, incoming delivery from the off-spinner as he tried to turn it on the leg side. (95-3, 26)
Meanwhile, Kaif took a painstaking 97 balls to reach his half-century, his 13th in one-day internationals.
India reached 106 for 3 after 30 overs, as spinners Utseya and Gavin Ewing started piling on the pressure by restricting the flow of boundaries.
In their first match against New Zealand, the Indian top and middle order had failed, with no batsmen registering a decent score. And the plan on Monday was quite clear: preserve your wickets, take the singles and launch in the final overs. While wickets were being preserved, the batsmen found it difficult to score singles and boundaries.
Kaif's suffering finally came to an end when he was brilliantly caught and bowled by Ewing after scoring 65. Ewing dived full length to his right, taking a sharp one-handed catch as Kaif played back to the bowler. (121-4, 35)
The most notable feature of his 122-ball knock was that he had 82 dot balls to his name, while taking only 29 singles in his 35-over stay at the crease.
While Yuvraj struggled against spin, Mahendra Singh Dhoni looked to break the shackles as he hit Utseya for a six over midwicket and then a boundary straight down the ground as India reached 146 for 4 after 40 overs.
Dhoni's second six came off medium pacer Ireland; he carted him over the square leg fence in the 42nd over as India looked to hit their way out of trouble. Yuvraj's first boundary came after 51 balls when he despatched a wide delivery from Streak to the point boundary. India gradually stepped up the run-rate to reach 168 for 4 after 43 overs.
After struggling for the most part of his stay at the wicket, Yuvraj seemed to have found his bearing finally as he hit two boundaries in the 46th over off Ireland.
In the 48th over, Dhoni launched Blignaut for two sixes to reach his half-century off just 39 balls. The first six was pulled down to the square leg fence, and the second was a huge straight six, the ball disappearing out of the ground as India crossed the 200 mark.
Dhoni's valiant knock of 56 came to an end when he holed out straight to Blessing Mahwire at long-off off Ireland. The Jharkhand wicketkeeper's blazing knock, which included four huge sixes, gave the team the much-needed impetus in the final few overs. (224-5, 49.3)
He added 103 runs in 87 balls for the fifth wicket with Yuvraj to help lift the run rate.
Ajit Agarkar's entry into the middle surprised, especially when there was the in-form Jai Prakash Yadav and Irfan Pathan to follow. As usual, Agarkar lived up to his reputation, dismissed first ball, offering a simple catch to Streak to give Ireland his second wicket of the over.
Yuvraj remained unbeaten on 53 off 71 balls as India posted a rather healthy 226 for 6 in 50 overs.
For Zimbabwe, the two spinners -- Utseya and Ewing -- impressed, claiming a wicket each while restricting the scoring in the middle overs. Streak was at his miserly best, taking one for 32 in 10 overs.
Zimbabwe made first use of the Supersub, with batsman Visu Sibanda replacing fast bowler Ireland after the first over.
Irfan Pathan struck the first blow in the third over of the innings, bowling opener Brendon Taylor for 3. (7-1, 2.4)
Taylor decided to shoulder arms to a delivery that pitched outside the off-stump in the hope that it would swing away, but, to his dismay, the ball swung in and crashed into the off-stump.
Stuart Carlisle, on 3, was lucky to survive a close leg before decision in Pathan's next over. The ball pitched on off-stump and seemed certain to hit the off and middle, but Zimbabwean umpire Kevan Barbour turned down the appeal.
Both Pathan and Nehra started off very well, bowling at a good pace and getting some swing. Zimbabwe opted for a slow and cautious start, scoring 14 for 1 after five overs.
The first bowling change came in the eighth over when Ajit Agarkar replaced Nehra. The Mumbai speedster struck immediately, claiming the wicket of Sibanda. The right-hander, trying to drive down the wicket, offered an easy catch to the bowler and was out for 7. (17-2, 7.1)
Ganguly's move to introduce Agarkar paid off immediately, as the pacer struck two balls later, getting Hamilton Masakadza out leg before wicket. (17-3, 7.3)
Agarkar got one to skid from just outside the off-stump to catch Masakadza right in front of the wickets. Zimbabwe laboured to 29 for 3 after 10 overs, and India opted to use the second Powerplay.
The fourth wicket fell when Carlisle was dismissed leg before wicket by Pathan off the first ball of the 11th over. (29-4, 10.1)
Once again the batsman failed to counter Pathan's incoming delivery and was trapped plumb in the front of the wickets. The next delivery, Pathan was unlucky as umpire Barbour again turned down a close leg before wicket decision against Heath Streak.
Pathan had his third scalp when Ganguly took a brilliant catch to send back his counterpart, Taibu. The Zimbabwe wicketkeeper tried to force the ball on the leg side, but ended up offering a difficult chance to Ganguly, who grabbed it a few inches from the ground. (30-5, 12.1)
He claimed his fourth wicket two balls later as Charles Coventry played on to his stumps to leave Zimbabwe in tatters. Coventry tried to cut a ball too close to his stumps, and ended up cleaning his own stumps. (30-6, 12.3)
The wickets kept falling for Zimbabwe as Agarkar struck in the 13th over, trapping Blignaut leg before wicket. The left-hander missed the swing of the ball to become the third Zimbabwean to be trapped leg before wicket. (35-7, 14).
Ewing became Pathan's fifth victim of the innings, giving the bowler first five-wicket haul in one-day internationals. Once again it was a case of a Zimbabwe batsman having no answer to the swing and being beaten comprehensively. (36-8, 14.5)
Pathan had single-handedly run through the Zimbabwe batting, claiming 5 for 15 in his first eight overs, while Agarkar gave him good company with 3 for 10 in his four overs.
The first 15 overs were a disaster for Zimbabwe as none of the batsmen could to reach double figures, the highest being 9 scored by Carlislse, with four of them dismissed for a duck. Quite rightly, India decided to use the third Powerplay at the end of the 15th over.
Last year at the same venue, Zimbabwe were bowled out for 35 against Sri Lanka, the lowest total in one-day internationals and another rout seemed destined.
The misery continued as Blessing Mahwire shouldered arms to another incoming delivery from Agarkar and was bowled. (43-9, 17.4)
Pathan bowled his ten overs on the trot, ending with fantastic figures of 5 for 27, including three maiden overs and loads of incoming deliveries, which had left the Zimbabwe batsmen shell-shocked. But, surprisingly, he didn't get a deserved rest, as India did not make use of the Supersub rule by getting Suresh Raina to replace Pathan.
Zimbabwe moved on to 54 for 9 after 20 overs, as Pathan was replaced by off-spinner Harbhajan Singh.
The innings ended when Harbhajan grabbed the final wicket in his third over. Utseya inside-edged and the ball popped straight to Dravid at first slip. Zimbabwe were bowled out for a paltry 65 in 24.3 overs.
For Zimbabwe, things are not looking bright. In the first match against New Zealand it was the bowlers who were taken to the cleaners, but in this match it was the batsmen who failed miserably.
Streak, who scored 18, finished as the top scorer while Utseya (11) was the other batsman to score in double digits. Such was the sorry tale of Zimbabwe's batting that the 22-run partnership for the final wicket was the highest partnership of the innings.
In the end, the crushing 161-run victory came a bit too easy for the Indians. Their next big test will again be against New Zealand on Friday, September 2.
For Zimbabwe, they will need to do some serious soul-searching and hope they can come up with a decent and better performance in the next encounter.