Graeme Cremer begun the day without a Test fifty and a batting average of 10.75 but the Zimbabwe captain struck an unlikely maiden century to keep Sri Lanka at bay in the first Test in Harare.
But Cremer’s gritty knock could not prevent his side from going to stumps on day three with a heavy deficit.
The leg-spinner, who arrived at the crease in Harare with Zimbabwe 6-139 in reply to Sri Lanka’s 537 and facing the prospect of following on, hit 102 not out to drag the home side to 373 all out.
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By the close of play on Monday, Sri Lanka had reached 0-5 in their second innings to lead by 169.
Cremer’s previous highest score in Test cricket was 43, but he showed his batsmen what was possible with a bit of application as he batted for over four hours.
Zimbabwe’s collapse in the morning had owed more to a series of rash strokes than trying conditions or outstanding bowling.
They resumed on a promising 1-88, but soon saw opener Tino Mawoyo pull a short ball from Suranga Lakmal straight to deep midwicket to depart for 45, and two overs later Hamilton Masakadza prodded forward to edge Lakmal to slip for 33.
Sean Williams then picked out the man in the deep with a careless sweep, before Craig Ervine and Malcolm Waller were trapped lbw by Dilruwan Perera.
At 6-139, Zimbabwe were in danger of being shot out and being forced to bat again but Peter Moor’s counter-attacking knock changed the momentum of the innings.
His two early sixes forced the field back, while Cremer was content to provide dogged support from the other end.
"I think we bat quite well together because PJ plays some big shots and keeps the scoreboard ticking, and I know that I can block out a maiden if I need to and just get off strike,” said Cremer.
“So that helps me a lot, knowing there’s someone on the other end scoring.”
Moor went on to score a career-best 79 in a 132-run stand with Cremer which only ended when Lahiru Kumara produced a fearsome bouncer that Moor fended to slip.
Kumara went on to knock Cremer’s helmet off his head and rattle the Zimbabwe skipper, who was then fortunate to see a hook sht off Kumara dropped at deep backward square-leg with his score on 58.
Cremer went on to add 92 for the eighth wicket with Donald Tiripano as Zimbabwe’s tail continued to wag, but nearly ran out of partners on 99 when the ninth wicket went down.
Zimbabwe’s final batsman Chris Mpofu managed to hold off Rangana Herath to give Cremer his chance, and the 30-year-old duly went to three figures to cap an impressive feat for a batsman whose Test average was only just in double digits prior to the Test.
“I hadn’t got 50 before in Test cricket and I don’t even have a five-for yet, so it was quite special,” said Cremer.
“When I got to 75, I started thinking, ‘There’s a chance here.’ Then I thought I might run out of partners.
“It was an awesome feeling to get that one run to get to a hundred.”