GIVEN THAT Zimbabwe clearly plan to eschew every easy option in this World Cup, it is probably unwise yet to write off their semi-final dream, even though New Zealand are strong favourites to win when this weather-hit contest continues today. Assuming yesterday's paltry total is not enough, the one victory the Africans need to prolong the fairy tale will have to be at the expense of either Pakistan or Australia.
Of course, after what happened to India and South Africa in the group matches, it is quite possible they could beat either, even both. In reality, however, it is much more likely they will regret spurning their opportunity. More so because they did so by succumbing to self-doubt.
They had suffered stage-fright in the opening phase, winning their first two matches but then surrendering tamely to Sri Lanka and England before, with all hope apparently lost, they pulled off that extraordinary win over South Africa at Chelmsford to go through at England's expense. There were other factors yesterday, most notably the discipline of New Zealand's bowlers, but nerves certainly played a part as they toiled to compile a modest total.
But for the fourth-wicket partnership of 91 between Alistair Campbell and Murray Goodwin, the task facing New Zealand in staking their claim for the last four might have been easier still. After Geoff Allott's first spell had accounted, critically, for the dangerous Neil Johnson and then Andy Flower as Zimbabwe struggled to 45 for 3, the alliance between the captain and the experienced Goodwin could not have been more timely.
However, though they warded off the threat of a rout, the pair were never able to escape the shackles applied by Allott's supporting cast, of whom only Dion Nash conceded more than four runs an over. In the middle phase of the innings, Zimbabwe's scoring rate almost ground to a halt. Only 22 runs were added between the 20th over and the 30th, and just 40 between the 30th and 40th overs. And when the tail tried to put things right in the concluding 10 overs, they merely lost their wickets.
Given that Campbell had taken the bold decision to bat first, flying in the face of custom in this tournament, it was a shame that courage was not rewarded. There was no spite in the wicket, although not much pace either, despite Allott clocking 91mph with one delivery. The whole innings yielded only 14 boundaries.
Two lengthy stoppages, one of more than two hours, the other spanning 68 minutes, did not help. But Zimbabwe needed to be a good deal less circumspect and a good deal more canny. New Zealand placed their fields well and their opponents could rarely locate the gaps. What is more, they tended to hit the ball a little too hard, allowing little scope to turn ones into twos or twos into threes.
Even so, it had all started promisingly. Johnson, their hero with bat and ball against South Africa, began in fluent form, striking the ball so well that the early loss of Grant Flower, run out by Matthew Horne's fine throw after Johnson had turned a ball to square leg, did not seem to matter much.
Johnson drove and pulled five boundaries, mostly off Nash, and it was a significant blow that Allott should find a ball to undo him in full flow. The 27-year-old left-armer, who has rebuilt his career impressively after serious injury, showed why he has emerged as the World Cup's leading wicket taker with a ball that moved enough to induce a mis-hit, the ball deflected off the bat onto his front pad before making contact with the stumps.
Soon afterwards Andy Flower was out after facing only two balls, undone by extra bounce from Allott as Craig McMillan took a superb diving catch at gully, leaving Zimbabwe on 47 for 3 before the first downpour.
The stoppages meant Goodwin and Campbell twice had their rhythm disturbed, in the second instance critically. The third ball after the second resumption saw Goodwin caught behind attempting to cut Chris Harris. Soon after, Campbell, anxious to accelerate, top-edged a pull off Gavin Larsen.
The innings never regained momentum subsequently, only Guy Whittall threatening to get into any purposeful stride. When he skied to cover, Allott equalled the record for wickets in a World Cup by increasing his tally to 18.
New Zealand, wary of the weather, made a lightning start to the chase, reaching 59 by the ninth over before Horne was leg before to Guy Whittall. Two more wickets checked their progress before fading light brought a third stoppage, but at 70 for 3 off 15 overs they remain in the driving seat.