Bulawayo: The currently unranked Zimbabwe went at the world No. 8 New Zealand mercilessly on a fifth day dripping with Test-match brilliance, but they ran out of steam dramatically after tea to lose by 34 runs. It was a crushing result for the hosts who went for a win in a situation that would have forced many of the Test elite sides to play safe.
Their spark was lit by Brendan Taylor, who hustled to his third century in seven innings. Taylor's brilliance put Zimbabwe on pole position at tea, but the game turned on its head once he exited after the break. Doug Bracewell and Daniel Vettori barged through, as Zimbabwe capsized from 265 for 3 to 331 all out, with less than six overs left in the match.
The force was with Zimbabwe at tea, with the target down to 101 off a possible 29 overs. New Zealand's shoulders had visibly slumped a little earlier, when the lack of sufficient video evidence meant a huge moment went against them. Taylor had scythed Chris Martin uppishly to deep cover where BJ Watling dived forward to scoop it inches from the ground, but it was impossible to say from the camera angles on offer whether it was a clean catch. Incredibly, Taylor holed out to the same fielder in the first over after the break, and this time Watling pouched it clearly.
Suddenly, New Zealand found the extra gear they had lacked all day. Vettori, who has an unspectacular record in the fourth innings, probed away with intent, employing two slips and short leg against the debutant Malcolm Waller. Taibu, already past 50, was the bigger menace, and Vettori adopted a negative line against him. After resisting the urge to sweep all day, Taibu eventually top-edged from outside leg stump to midwicket.
Zimbabwe looked for singles, New Zealand looked for wickets, and the pressure got to Bracewell, who over-stepped while delivering an effort ball that would have got him a wicket. Vettori then made a strong case for the Spirit of Cricket award, by refraining from appealing for a potentially match-turning run-out after unknowingly obstructing a single. With every run scored, the game was swinging in a manner Twenty20 cricket just cannot replicate. Bracewell then cleaned up the tail, while Man of the Match Vettori trapped Waller and Chris Mpofu to seal what was, arguably, the best Test match of the year.
The grand finish would have never materialised but for Taylor's brilliance, or the grit shown by his top-order colleagues. Mawoyo blunted the sharp end of New Zealand's intent, and after his dismissal Taibu was assiduous in thwarting them until tea. But Taylor's daredevilry provided the fuel to propel Zimbabwe's ambition.
The rain clouds dotting the horizon gave the seamers absolutely no assistance in the morning, and Taylor checked in with a series of audacious shots. In one Martin over, he whipped the first ball furiously over square leg, before chipping out and punching a straight six, and upper-cutting a short ball over third man for four. He took two more fours in Martin's next over to announce Zimbabwe's intentions.
Mawoyo built on the tremendous powers of denial he had displayed in his marathon 163* against Pakistan in September. He was initially roughed up early by Bracewell's well-directed bouncers, but that spell ended when Martin changed ends. He countered Vettori off the front foot as often as possible - a significant departure from his handling of Saeed Ajmal's bigger bag of tricks in the Pakistan Test. With Mawoyo stone-walling Vettori, Taylor got stuck into Jeetan Patel. He scampered out of his crease four times in the day to swipe the hapless offspinner into the recesses beyond the leg-side boundary.
As is often the case in these circumstances, a part-timer intervened with a freakish breakthrough. Martin Guptill's second ball bounced extra as it turned down the leg side, and Mawoyo somehow contrived to drag it onto off stump. His untimely exit stalled the scoring-rate after lunch, as Taibu subdued his normally breezy approach.
The defensiveness allowed New Zealand to employ several men close-in, with Brendon McCullum crouching at the batsmen's face at silly point, and tumbling forward in anticipation almost every ball. Taylor scrambled across for a quick single in the 59th over, but the cover fielder missed the stumps. Taibu was trapped in front by a sharp inswinger, and - not for the first time in the match - umpire Marais Erasmus wrongly ruled in the batsman's favour.
Bracewell positioned two short legs about five yards from each other and bent in a series of reverse swingers. Taylor clipped one of them uppishly, but found the miniscule gap, before bringing up his ton with an edge through the cordon. Taibu too broke free after pottering around to 9 off 67 balls, cutting and steering Martin for fours, before hitting a four and a six off Guptill.
With the game heading Zimbabwe's way, New Zealand turned to the second new ball in desperation. Taylor chose to chance his arm over the covers. He got away with it once but it cost him his wicket the second time. Over the next couple of hours, it went on to cost his side a special piece of history.