The African country produced perhaps the best performance of its checkered existence as a test-playing nation when it beat Pakistan by 24 runs in Harare on Saturday.
It was the first time it had beaten anybody other than Bangladesh, a perennial punching bag, in the five-day format since a 2001 victory over India, also in Harare. That 12-year span includes five years, from 2006 to 2011, when it dropped out of test cricket.
The team that won Saturday was very different from the victors of 2001, and not just because of the passage of time. Twelve years ago, Zimbabwe’s starting eleven mostly reflected its history in the country, that of a game played in exclusive schools by the country’s white minority.
In 2001, there were only two nonwhite players on the squad. There are still white players on Zimbabwe’s 2013 team, including the captain, Brendan Taylor. But they are now the exception, and the team is dominated by players from Zimbabwe’s majority black population.
They include the 22-year-old pace bowler Tendai Chatara, who took 5 wickets for 61 runs as Pakistan was bowled out for 239 on the final day.
Asked why he had run toward a particular part of the ground after taking each wicket, he explained that it was in the direction of his hometown of Mutare. “Coming from the ghetto to here,” Chatara told the ESPNCricinfo Web site, “it just feels nice to contribute.”
Chatara shared the new ball with Brian Vitori, who is a year older and who also produced his best international bowling — also 5 for 61 — in Pakistan’s first innings. The duo also combined in Zimbabwe’s first innings for a last-wicket stand that produced 46 runs, nearly twice the margin of victory.
Pakistan’s final out came through the alert fielding by Zimbabwe’s vice captain, Hamilton Masakadza. He is perhaps most famous for scoring 119 in his test debut in 2001 against the West Indies. That made him not only the first black Zimbabwean to score a century in test cricket but, at just under 18, he was also then the youngest player from anywhere to score 100 in his debut.
Now 30, Masakadza is the team’s veteran. His contributions of 75 and 44 made him the highest scorer in the match, with a first-innings stand of 110 with Taylor giving Zimbabwe an advantage it never lost in the close-fought contest.
“Beating a world-class team is a great feeling,” Taylor said. While previous Zimbabwe teams were overreliant on a few strong performers, Taylor said, “The great thing about this time is that everybody contributed.”
Zimbabwe’s players had come close to boycotting the match in protest after they were not paid their salaries, and they only agreed to play after receiving a partial payment.
The team’s bowlers have had no specialist coach for six months. Heath Streak, who was captain in 2001, was fired as bowling coach in a cost-saving move.
Originally scheduled for Bulawayo, the match was moved to Harare to save Zimbabwe’s cash-strapped Cricket Union around $50,000 in expenses. The union is reported to have debts of around $15 million.
“The boys deserved a win after everything they had to put up with!” fast bowler Kyle Jarvis said on Twitter. Jarvis quit the national team last month.
The victory gave Zimbabwe a 1-1 draw in the series. Zimbabwe bounced back after a disappointing first match, when it lost after dominating for long periods of play.
“We’ve matured very quickly,” Taylor said. “We were a little more determined this time.”
Zimbabwe did not panic when Pakistan’s captain, Misbah-ul-Haq, looked to be batting his team to victory. Misbah struck four boundaries in two overs to take his team to within 25 runs of victory, but he was left on 79 not out when one partner was caught and a second run out after a running mix-up.
“Chasing in the fourth innings, the pressure makes you make mistakes and panic,” said Misbah, who was characteristically gracious in defeat. “Zimbabwe really deserved their victory. They played well in both the tests and maintained pressure throughout the game.”
“This win shows how hard work has paid off and the guys have realized that,” said Zimbabwe Coach Andy Waller, whose son, Malcolm, plays on the team. “But we’re nowhere near the mark we want to be. We’re going to keep training and keep at it and become better.”
There is nothing a team wants more after a memorable victory than a chance to follow that up and show it was no fluke. Zimbabwe has a two-match series scheduled at home against Sri Lanka next month. But Sri Lankan officials said last week that the Zimbabwe Cricket Union had asked for the matches to be canceled, since it cannot afford to stage the series.
Life just got a little better for Zimbabwe’s cricket players, but it may be a while yet before it gets any easier.