It was expected that Ireland’s series in Zimbabwe would be a close one, and the first one-day international produced a thrilling finish as the hosts squeaked home by two wickets with just an over to spare. Zimbabwe’s pursuit of Ireland’s 219 for 8 was defined by a pair of half centuries from Craig Ervine and Sikandar Raza, but on a slow pitch that played ever slower as the afternoon wore on, it was Raza’s busy 60 that took Zimbabwe home.
Just as Ireland had come unstuck against Zimbabwe’s spinners earlier in the day, so did the hosts as they stumbled in the middle of their chase, but Raza found just enough help from the tailenders to get the hosts over the line. He marshalled the second half of Zimbabwe’s chase, having arrived at the crease in the 27th over after Elton Chigumbura’s dismissal.
At the time, Ireland’s spinners – and George Dockrell in particular – were keeping the Zimbabwe batsmen in check and the pressure quickly started to build. Ervine, who returned to the side after missing the ODI series against Pakistan with a hamstring strain, had helped to lay a platform with a characteristically languid knock. With Raza at the other end, he brought up a 65-ball fifty in the 28th over but was then caught behind off the bowling of offspinner Andrew McBrine as Ireland found another opening.
A nervous innings from Malcolm Waller was ended when he picked out Stuart Thompson in the deep and when Luke Jongwe was run-out, Zimbabwe still needed 48 from the final ten overs with just three wickets in hand. Raza had only the tail for company, but he found a surprisingly able partner in debutant Wellington Masakadza. Together they pinched singles through the smallest of gaps, pushing for every run, and Raza kept Zimbabwe just in front with the odd boundary, bringing up his own fifty in the 46th over.
With the match drawing to a nail-biting finish, the pair pushed for one run too many and Masakadza was run out for 10 to bring Tinashe Panyangara to the wicket. Zimbabwe needed 11 from the last three overs, and importantly Ireland had ran out of spin options. When the equation came down to single figures in the penultimate over, Ireland captain William Porterfield brought the field in with Panyangara on strike. The burly quick responded in brave fashion, stepping down the track to club Tim Murtagh down the ground, ending the match and sparking fevered celebrations from the modest crowd that had gathered to watch it.
Though Raza’s knock sealed the result, the character of this game was decided by the spinners on both sides. Zimbabwe’s combination of John Nyumbu, Sean Williams and Masakadza took a combined 5 for 125 in 29 overs, while Dockrell was a handful in the afternoon and Ireland’s slow bowlers kept Zimbabwe to 117 for 4 in 30 overs.
Ireland had relied upon a pair of fifties of their own to reach what proved to be a very challenging total in the conditions. Ed Joyce, accumulating busily, helped to keep the score ticking over after three early wickets had pegged back Ireland’s rollicking start against the new ball and he was soon joined at the crease by wicket keeper Gary Wilson.
Both men have the technique and temperament for these conditions, and they added 83 for the fourth wicket in 18.3 overs. Joyce perished for 53, slicing Nyumbu to Chigumbura in the covers, and Ireland then slipped to 176 for 8 in the 46th over as the lower order perished in the pursuit of quick runs.
But Wilson remained, and with an adventurous Andrew McBrine he boosted the score with 28 runs in the last two overs. Wilson finished unbeaten on 70 at the close, but all his hard work in the stifling mid-day heat wasn’t quite enough to set up an Ireland win.