Raza raises Bellerive roof in victory over Scotland

Let once again but the unstoppable Sikandar Raza, Zimbabwe raced into the second round with a strong performance, even if a slow chase threatened to leave it beyond their grasp. On a used pitch that had slowed remarkably from the earlier game, both teams struggled to find the middle of the bat. Well, all except for one man.

It was going to rain. That’s what they kept telling us. On Monday, it was supposed to rain. Definitely on Wednesday, don’t let those clear skies fool you. Friday? Don’t even bother, you might drown on the way to the ground.

It probably did affect Richie Berrington’s decision to bat, as the logic of recent matches, plus Zimbabwe’s documented batting weakness, would surely lead bowling first to be the conclusion. The clouds drifted between overcast and apocalyptic doom, but their movement was glacial, keeping the big stormclouds over Mount Wellington at least a few hours away.

But within overs, the decision was threatening to backfire. Scotland’s known weakness against pace bowling was coming right up against Zimbabwe’s known strength for facing it. Mike Jones spooned one over the ring, right where Zimbabwe’s best fielder (and bowler and batter) Sikandar Raza was stationed, leading to a remarkable running catch. Matthew Cross once again struggled against the short ball, this time being early on the pull and picking out midwicket, with another excellent catch.

At the other end though George Munsey managed to find gaps on a regular basis, and despite the losses the runrate never stagnated too much. But it wasn’t going to be long before that man Raza found his way back into the game. Joining Sean Williams for a middle-overs squeeze, the pair frustrated the Scots with flat, quick deliveries, until Berrington tried to take on the long boundary only to pick out Milton Shumba. Such was the spin squeeze that Craig Ervine even turned to Wessly Madhevere to keep the lid on, and Munsey and Calum MacLeod completely lost their ability to find gaps.

When Munsey finally holed out, it almost came as a relief, as both him and MacLeod looked no more likely to find the boundary than anyone in the hutch. But aside from some flat-bat brutality from Michael Leask, the struggle continued. it did not seem like there was a single well-timed ball in the last 15 overs of the innings, and even Munsey’s boundaries early on only pierced the gaps by inches. In the contest of the day, 132 didn’t look anywhere near enough.

Scotland reacted to all this information learned in the first innings by changing plans. Mark Watt did not open the bowling, perhaps in light of how successful Zimbabwe’s spinners had been in the middle order. Instead it was Brad Wheal, who responded to being pumped through midwicket for four by ramping up to 140.1 to pin Regis Chakabva, the sorts of speeds not thought possible north of the border. An over later, Josh Davey got Wessly Madhevere to chop on from a ball of somewhat less speed, proving that perhaps this pitch had turned since the hours when Paul Stirling and Andy Balbirnie were peeling off sixes for fun. Craig Ervine and Sean Williams were watchful for the rest of the powerplay, and by the time it came for Scotland’s spin lid to come on, Zimbabwe were half a dozen behind the par score.

The lid closed, and the lid did its job. But when the lid accounted for Sean Williams, with an unbelievable catch by Brad Wheal, it brought Sikandar Raza to the crease. For all of Zimbabwe’s batting frailties, there is no denying that Raza in his current form can win a game on his own. And to prize him out, Richie Berrington gave the dice one almighty roll.

In theory, it made sense. Scotland’s third spinner, Chris Greaves, is a legspinner. And on this track, with these power hitters, he was not to be risked. Calum MacLeod walks to the crease. Five balls in, it had worked. MacLeod was darting them in and yielding only singles. With the required rate at nearly eight, this wasn’t the worst result. But then he floated one, 20kph slower than before. It sat up, and Raza pulled, and it sailed just a few metres over the head of the fielder. A few metres from genius.

But now Raza was in the zone. He was going to win it for Zimbabwe or die trying. And from a struggling, scratchy team innings, he exploded to 40 in no time, and surely the game was won? At the other end Ervine was still scratching away, barely able to keep up at a run a ball, but Raza was finding the middle of the bat with ease. So when he nicked one behind off Josh Davey, perhaps there was still a sniff for Scotland?

There wasn’t. It was too little too late for the boys in blurple, and like Namibia before them, a famous opening win ended in heartbreak as they were unable to repeat the dose. For Zimbabwe, led by an outstanding group of bowlers and a man on a mission, they go into the main stage with full confidence, albeit with some batting holes.

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