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Zimbabwe cricket, on its knees for so long, jumped up and celebrated one of its greatest days when they knocked the world’s top-ranked one-day team from its perch with a three-wicket win amid remarkable scenes in Harare.
With a team of spirited but essentially amateur cricketers that handled conditions suited to spinners, and facing one of the game’s most professional outfits that believed its fast bowlers would prevail, Zimbabwe held their nerve to chase down Australia’s total of 209 with two overs to spare.
The end could hardly have been more emphatic, and was delivered fittingly by their number-one spinner Prosper Utseya in partnership with his skipper.
Utseya, who had joined forces with captain Elton Chigumbiura in the final 10 overs to fashion a nerveless eighth-wicket stand of 55, crowned the moment when he clubbed Mitchell Starc beyond the mid-wicket boundary with five runs needed.
It unleashed an explosion of spontaneous joy, as his teammates raced on to the field to embrace the new national heroes.
One of the biggest, and certainly most euphoric crowds seen at the Harare Sports Club since the nation’s cricket stocks began to tumble a decade ago danced, cheered and willed every run inside the last 10 overs as their skipper and their most successful spinner carried them to history.
The scenes when Utseya unleashed will remain etched in the memory of all there and the Australian television viewers who waited up to see it, and will hopefully do more for the cause of the game in Zimbabwe than simply deliver a headache for local fans in the morning.
The unwanted history the Australians now own would have ranked alongside their controversy-tinged loss to Bangladesh in Cardiff in 2005 and the even more inexplicable defeat to a Zimbabwean team making its first-ever international appearance as part of the 1983 World Cup in England.
They had not beaten Australia in cricket at international level since that day at Trent Bridge 31 years ago. Until today.
The result also sees Australia lose its cherished ODI world No.1 ranking, Darren Lehmann's team sliding to fourth behind India, South Africa and Sri Lanka, with just 2.45 points separating the top four sides.
Putting this boilover into more contemporary context, Zimbabwe’s only previous ODI win of substance in the past three years came against Pakistan in Bulawayo last August as their team bled talent and resources.
It also completed an abject day for skipper Michael Clarke who, despite top-scoring (68no) as the only Australian batsman able to find a way to survive and score in conditions more often associated with the sub-continent, re-injured his left hamstring and will now fly home to Australia for treatment in a bid to be right for the team's next engagement, a two-Test tour of the UAE to face Pakistan.
Clarke re-injured the left hamstring that had kept him out of his team’s first two games of the fortnight-long tournament when completing a run in the 40th over, having come to the crease in the fourth.
Quick Single: Clarke's Harare hamstring pain
He became increasingly inconvenienced by the injury and, after hobbling through for a couple of runs in the 43rd over, he decided his immobility was not going to serve Australia well as they battled to post a meaningful total and he retired himself from the action with 68 (from 102 balls) to his name.
When he failed to take the field for Zimbabwe’s innings it was feared he had suffered significant damage and that his future for the rest of the tri-series was clouded.
The skipper confirmed that doubt at the post-match presentation when revealing he would leave the African nation within the next 24 hours.
Of more immediate concern was his enforced absence from the bowling crease, as one of the spin options Australia had banked on given conditions that resembled the Mumbai pitch on which he’d taken career-best Test figures of 6-9 in his maiden series.
But with Zimbabwe on track for an upset as unlikely as it would be unforgettable, he returned to marshal a team that was battling to rein in an opponent that was supposed to provide nothing much more than novelty value in a three-cornered fight featuring two heavyweights.
Just as South Africa’s captain AB de Villiers had dismissed his leg problems as cramp during his match-winning century against Australia last Wednesday – even though he did miss the next match with a “viral infection” – so Clarke looked to be relatively untroubled on his return.
He moved smartly to his right at slip to snare a catch that had bounced from the gloves of batsman Sean Williams and wicketkeeper Brad Haddin, and was a demonstrative and authoritative captain as Australia slowly pegged back their hosts by capturing crucial wickets.
And while Lyon set the ball rolling by claiming openers Sikander Raza (22) and Tino Mawoyo (15) within 10 balls of entering the attack, it was Starc who struck the most important blow when he burst through Hamilton Masakazda’s defence and skittled his off-stump.
Masakadza has been Zimbabwe’s best performed batsman in this series as well as the three ODIs against South Africa that preceded it, and with Brendan Taylor – a truly world-class player – they held the key to securing their team a deserved slice of history.
He had muscled part-time spinner Aaron Finch over the mid-wicket fence two overs earlier, and loomed as the batsman likely to get the world’s 10th-ranked ODI team to their target if he stayed the course.
In the next over, Taylor was outfoxed by Lyon when he played over a ball that dipped on him as he advanced and also led to a flattened off stump.
From there, it became a game of ebb and flow but ultimately – as was the case in their loss to South Africa last week – it was the Australian seamers’ inability to make breakthroughs when needed that decided the result.
As Clarke observed at his pre-match media conference on match eve, the pitch used in today’s match had seen action earlier in the tournament and was destined to take spin.
Facing tri-series opponents with firepower the likes of Mitchell Johnson and Dale Steyn, the hosts had not unexpectedly removed all life from the wickets and let them bake under the cloudless skies that have dawned each day in Harare since the Australians arrived.
But this one revealed its true nature in the day’s second over when, as he had done against South Africa two days earlier, off-spinner John Nyumbu shared the new ball and cast demons into the minds of every Australian batsman when his first pair of deliveries turned Phi Hughes inside out.
The game was less than five minutes old and the decision to omit a specialist batsman who also bowls spin and stick with the four-seamer attack was a legitimate talking point on social media and around the ground.
When Finch, George Bailey and Glenn Maxwell all had their stumps rattled by different members of the Zimbabwe spin quartet, with each falling to deliveries that turned with varying degrees of extravagance and venom, it was up to Clarke and Mitchell Marsh – the man he replaced at number three – to mount a salvage.
By that time, Hughes had also perished – his attempt to hit his way out of the web cast by the spinners ballooned to slip – the world’s top-ranked ODI team had slumped to 4-57 with only the 'keeper, all-rounders and tailenders to follow.
Marsh showed that he is more than a power hitter when he negotiated more than 10 overs with his captain to forge a timely stand of 40 that was aided by some sloppy Zimbabwean ground fielding.
That issue became even more consequential when Marsh departed trying to up the tempo against seamer Donald Tiripano and Brad Haddin – in attempting to do the same to the spinners – was dropped from a pair of mishit fly balls when on five and 17.
The true cost of those errors became apparent after Clarke had limped from the field in the 43rd over followed next ball by James Faulkner (for a technical rather than medical misadventure) and Haddin joined with Ben Cutting to post the decisive partnership of Australia’s innings.
The 51 the pair pummelled from 35 balls not only saw them past 200, but enabled their attack – albeit one stacked with seamers on a pitch that most spinners imagine in their more lurid dreams – a total they could conceivably defend.
Australia's XI: Aaron Finch, Phil Hughes, Michael Clarke (c), George Bailey, Glenn Maxwell, Mitchell Marsh, Brad Haddin (wk), James Faulkner, Ben Cutting, Mitchell Starc, Nathan Lyon
Zimbabwe XI: Tino Mawoyo,Sikandar Raza, Hamilton Masakadza, Brendan Taylor (wk), Sean Williams, Malcolm Waller, Elton Chigumbura (c), Prosper Utseya, John Nyumbu, Tendai Chatara, Donald Tiripano