A record-breaking 202-run partnership between Stuart Carlisle and Sean Ervine was in vain as Zimbabwe fell just three runs short of India's total in a thrilling VB tri-series match, at the Adelaide Oval, on Saturday.
Earlier, V V S Laxman scored his third century of the series and Rahul Dravid and Rohan Gavaskar made good fifties to help India amass 280 after they were reduced to four for three wickets early in the innings.
Yuvraj Singh, with scores of 139 and 69 earlier this week, was replaced with Sanjay Bangar after suffering a shoulder injury in Thursday's two-wicket loss to Australia.
Zimbabwe, who are without a win in four matches in the tournament, included Vusi Sibanda in place of injured batsman Mark Vermeulen, who underwent surgery for a depressed skull fracture earlier and will miss the rest of the series.
India captain Sourav Ganguly elected to bat after winning the toss. Bangar and Parthiv Patel opened the innings. An odd decision, considering Ganguly was also in the team. But it could be attributed to the Indian skipper's dismissals against the short ball, directed at the rib cage. He probably thought the openers would give him some protection against the new ball.
But he could not have been more wrong. Bangar was out in the first over, edging an attempted drive, for an easy chance to Staurt Carlisle at first slip. The fielder juggled with the ball four times before eventually holding on, much to Heath Streak's relief. (0/1)
Streak struck again in his next over to send Patel back to the pavilion in much the same manner as Bangar. (3/2)
That got Ganguly in to join Laxman. And his dismissal was very disappointing. For the fourth time in the series he was dismissed by a short ball. If you are trying to get back to form and there is a particular shot that's been faulty, it makes sense not to play the shot in question.
Blignaut baited him with a short ball outside the off-stump and the Indian skipper obliged with a top edge to a pull shot which was easily taken by Ebrahim at backward square leg. (4/3)
India recovered through Dravid and Laxman with a brilliant partnership in a manner that has become the norm for this Indian team on tour. A year ago, an Indian team, even with Virender Sehwag, Sachin Tendulkar and Yuvraj Singh, would have collapsed. Not anymore. There are no real collapses now; the threat is always present, but, invariably, there are big partnerships that rescue the team time and again.
In the last game it was Laxman and Yuvraj. This time round, Laxman joined forces with Dravid to take India from 2.07 RPO at the end of the fifth over to 4.5 RPO in the tenth over, and a very good 5.33 in 15 with no fuss.
Laxman, has without doubt, been the cornerstone of the Indian effort in the ODI series. In the space of a week, he scored his third century in ODI cricket and showed no signs of fatigue. For someone who is not among the fittest in the Indian squad, Laxman has been brilliant.
The 12th over of the innings clearly illustrated how difficult it is to bowl to him. Ervine was the bowler. A ball was flicked to the wide long-on boundary from outside the off-stump. And then, as if to say 'I can do it on the off-side too,' two balls later, he hit a blazing four through the covers. His ability to play almost three to four shots for every ball played makes him a very difficult man to bowl to; primarily because you can't set a field for him.
Dravid, at the other end, after the initial flurry of boundaries, concentrated on just staying at the wicket and building a big partnership with Laxman. But they kept scoring at almost 5 RPO and ensured that not too much was left to do in the slog overs. Even if the expected surge did not come, India would still have scored over 250, which would be competitive.
The five-an-over run rate during the middle overs in addition to partnerships, which ensures that India have wickets in hand at the death, have together contributed to the consistently big scores the team has put up in this series.
When Laxman was on 60, off 61 balls, Zimbabwe missed an easy chance to send him back to the hut. But Price failed to collect a brilliant throw from Bliganut. It would have caught him miles out of his crease.
Zimbabwe, with a closer set field and brilliant ground fielding, are one of the best fielding sides in the game, a fact reflected by their ability to keeping the Indians tied down without singles.
Laxman and Dravid added 133 runs in a vital partnership for India, before Dravid (56 off 72 balls) was dismissed by Price. The right-hander had a four over mid-on in the over before and perished while attempting to duplicate the shot off Price.
Dravid's dismissal saw the changed mindset of the Indian team on view once again as runs continued to flow. Rohan Gavaskar replaced Dravid at the wicket and though the method changed, the runs kept coming at the same rate as before. Gavaskar started off with singles but then got into his groove and showed he can play the big shots well too. Laxman though maintained a steady head at the other end. No risks were taken but shots of brilliant quality were played. India were 148 for the loss of 4 wickets at the end of the 30th over.
143 runs came in the last 20 overs. 65 between 30-40 and 78 in the last ten. The acceleration was steady and without risks. Laxman duly reached his third century of the series as Gavaskar, at the other end, completed his maiden half-century in his fourth ODI.
In the 46th, over Streak dropped a sitter to let Laxman off again. But the damage had already been done. India lost Laxman (131 off 138 balls), Gavaskar (54 off 62 balls) and Badani (5 off 3 balls) in the slog overs, as they attempted to get some quick runs, but still ended up with 280 for the loss of seven wickets.
Good cricket teams know how to win from any position and India have certainly have given themselves a very good chance.
After the batsmen put up a good total for India, it was time for the bowlers to do their job. For much of the early part of the Zimbabwe innings they did exactly that. Both Ajit Agarkar and Irfan Pathan started off with wides, but then, in a wonderful exhibition of swing bowling, they reduced Zimbabwe to 46 for the loss three wickets.
Grant Flower was the first to go. He tried to drive, off the back foot, a delivery that was not that up; the ball moved a little and Zimbabwe's most experienced batsman was heading back to the pavilion.
Travis Friend was next to go. A brilliant catch by Laxman, at second slip, made sure the batsman was dismissed for a duck.
Sibanda, the other opener, took 18 balls to get off the mark and was lucky to survive a caught behind appeal off Agarkar. But Laxmipathi Balaji had him, brilliantly caught and bowled.
But then the tide turned. So amazingly, that not one soul at the ground would have expected. A 202-run partnership - a record for any wicket for Zimbabwe -- between Stuart Carlisle and Sean Ervine had the Indians on the run.
The two played as the situation demanded; they looked for singles first and then turned on the gas late in the innings.
Throughout the series, Zimbabwe's lower middle order of Heath Streak, Tatenda Taibu, Andy Blignaut and Sean Ervine have lent respectability to their challenge. It was only logical to promote the batsmen getting runs up in the order.
Ervine, with a half-century in the last game, was sent ahead and he did exactly what the doctor ordered. While Carlisle struck to orthodox shots, Ervine had a go at anything that was there to be hit. He was especially severe on Murli Kartik, who conceded 49 in his seven overs.
Zimbabwe were 53 for the loss of three wickets in the 15th over of the innings. By the 45th over, Ervine and Carlisle had led Zimbabwe to 244 without further loss.
While taking nothing away from the efforts of the Zimbabwe batsmen, one wonders why Ganguly did not use all the bowlers at his disposal.
It happened in the Test series. Tendulkar and Sehwag were not given a bowl at times. Today, Gavaskar was given a rest.
With Kartik getting the stick it might have been useful to see how Gavaskar bowls. Both are left-arm orthordox bowlers, but Kartik tends to give the ball a lot of air whereas Gavaskar bowls a much flatter line and length.
Carlisle and Ervine reached their respective centuries in fine style. Ervine played some audacious sweeps off the fast bowlers and you could clearly see that Ganguly was under tremendous pressure. The bowlers were being smashed around the park -- every over seemingly yielding almost 7-8 runs with consummate ease.
A run-out chance was missed when Kartik failed to collect the ball cleanly in the 37th over. Carlisle, then on 73, would have been heading back to the pavilion and India would have heaved a sigh of relief. But it was not to be.
The tension kept steadily mounting as the required rate kept coming down. You could see it on the players' faces. The fatigue, the strain; the effects of four games in seven days were suddenly starting to show.
India got another chance in the 46th over and this time Ganguly made sure of the result. Agarkar had bowled a brilliant over, conceding just four runs off the first four balls, and the Zimbabweans were keen to take as many runs as possible off the final ball. Ervine drove to cover and Ganguly made the most of the resultant mixture. Ervine sacrificed his wicket so that his senior partner, Carlisle, could lead his team to victory. (248/4)
Ervine scored his hundred at a run-a-ball and, in doing so, also showed the world that Zimbabwe are capable of competing with the best.
Pathan followed up Agarkar's effort with a brilliant over. He conceded just three and the Zimbabweans now needed 30 runs off the last 18 balls. Agarkar was not about to let his captain down and struck a huge blow when he removed Carlisle.
A great knock of 109 was brought to an end. But Agarkar conceded 10 runs in the over. The equation had changed to 20 runs off 12 balls. Pathan conceded 11 including a boundary of the last ball of the over in the second last over to give Ganguly the jitters.
All the main pacemen had finished their quota of ten overs each and the Indian skipper was left with the option of bringing on either Kartik, Gavaskar, Bangar or himself. He chose Bangar, who had conceded 37 runs in his seven overs. Known as 'the Buddha' for his cool head in tense situations, Bangar bowled the perfect over and conceded just five runs to help India win by just three runs. Laxman took his second brilliant catch of the day -- running in from the boundary to the 30-metre circle and diving forward to complete a good catch -- to send back Blignaut and give Bangar his first wicket and more importantly a dot ball.
Off the last three balls, Zimbabwe needed seven runs, the same equation as in the previous match of the series against Australia. But this time, India allowed only four and eked out a close win.