Gibbs shines through the gloom

NatWest Series: Zimbabwe's limitations are painfully exposed as South Africa find their rhythm under new leader
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Zimbabwe keep their inspired one-day performances for their games against England. Inspiration was notably absent here yesterday on a grey day in front of a half-capacity crowd who had little to sing about. Quite literally, because a snatch of music accompanies each boundary and it was surprising to learn that the Piranhas and the rest had uttered 19 times in Zimbabwe's innings. There was a lot more noise when South Africa batted: 22 fours and two sixes in 34.2 overs.

The good news from Cardiff for England is that Zimbabwe's performance helped England's uphill struggle to qualify for next weekend's NatWest Series final at Lord's. Because South Africa knocked off the runs so quicky they got a bonus point and Zimbabwe did not. If England can win as handsomely against Zimbabwe at Bristol today and get the bonus point, they will qualify.

If England win less comfortably there will then be more permutations to consider in a league table made complicated by bonus points. And Zimbabwe have already proved difficult: "Maybe there's more self-belief that we can beat England," Heath Streak said.

The consequences of defeat would be fearful to contemplate, because England would need to beat South Africa at Edgbaston on Tuesday and then hope that Zimbabwe lost again to the South Africans at the Rose Bowl in Southampton on Thursday.

The good news for South Africa yesterday was the return to form of Herschelle Gibbs and their captain, Graeme Smith. Gibbs, whose three previous scores were 1, 5 and 5, was bowled by Andy Blignaut when he was 17, but by a no-ball. ("I've got to thank him for helping me out," Gibbs said.) After that, he played with the fluency we expect. Glancing finely to fine leg, hitting hard and square on both sides of the wicket and driving elegantly through the covers - and inelegantly too, off the back foot for six. His 93 came off 97 balls. He was man of the match.

Smith, who had not done much better than Gibbs before yesterday, scoring 44 in three innings, was not so good to look at but no less effective. He had reached 58 out of 154 when he was caught at the wicket off Sean Ervine's first ball.

It is hard to remember anything of distinction from Zimbabwe's batting. Streak did reach his fifty with a splendid six to long-off, but you can imagine what sort of performance it was when you learn that the scoring rate did not reach three an over until the 42nd over.

South Africa's bowlers did Zimbabwe no favours. Smith decided to bowl first, thinking that the ball might move about. But it was the sharp and unpredictable bounce that deceived the batsmen, and until Streak began to swing the bat, scoring looked hard. Shaun Pollock took no wickets, but was just as parsimonious as he had been at Old Trafford. The wickets will come. Dion Ebrahim began to ignore everything he had learned about footwork as he scratched and edged to 20 off 49 balls before gloving a steep bouncer to the keeper. Zimbabwe were then 38 for 3.

The middle order were no more convincing than England's. Tatenda Taibu and Stuart Matsikenyeri, a pair in age and size - they are both 20 and tiny - spent more time on Friday touring Cardiff Castle than they did at the crease yesterday. (They looked like two schoolboys on an outing, said the team spokesman fondly.) They were both embarrassed by Paul Adams, the 25-year-old left-arm "frog in a blender" spinner. He was bowling for the first time in this series and, unlike Ashley Giles, he attacked the batsmen.

Taibu failed to read a ball which straightened and was lbw for 19. Matsikenyeri was utterly confused by the ball spinning across him and played and missed regularly until he was put out of his misery after 12 deliveries.

Adams's eight overs cost only 26 runs: "He has become a lot more consistent," said Smith, who was himself in a much better frame of mind than after the six-wicket defeat by England a week ago. "We were really nervous against England. We are relaxed now." We have been warned.