It had been 12 years since Zimbabwe won a Test against any side but Bangladesh, and they chose a poignant time to beat Pakistan for a historic victory.
You didn't have to be a fan of Zimbabwean cricket to be moved to emotion when Prosper Utseya collected the ball at the nonstriker's end and broke the stumps to run out Pakistan's last man Rahat Ali off the last ball of the 81st over of an unforgettable Test match. It was hard to ignore the lump in the throat when the cameras followed the jubilant Zimbabwean team into the Harare Sports Club dressing room to capture scenes of fantastic and unbridled joy, pearly smiles and handshakes and tears and whooping and even impromptu push-ups from Utseya. On their last day of scheduled Test cricket in 2013, a side that ten days ago almost did not take the field beat Pakistan by 24 runs to level the series 1-1.
It was just Zimbabwe's 11th win in Test matches; the last time they beat any other team apart from Bangladesh was in June 2001, when Andy Blignaut took five wickets in an innings to help beat India at this very same ground. With all due respect to the heroes of Zimbabwe's previous Test victories against India and Pakistan - the Flowers, Guy Whittall, Heath Streak, Henry Olonga, Gavin Rennie, Neil Johnson, Murray Goodwin and Blignaut - this historic win in Harare will go down as the country's most significant Test win. Yes, bigger than the maiden win at this very same ground in 1995, the 61-run success over Mohammad Azharuddin's side here in 1998, bigger than Peshwar '98 and Harare 2001, when Blignaut took five in an innings to down India at the HSC too.
Why? Because it came against the backdrop of financial instability, with players threatening to boycott the series - two of them did leave the Test squad - and with the country's cricket facing a new low after the white player exodus of 2004. This side does not have match-winners or superstars. No Flowers, Streaks or Houghtons. This was Pakistan, ranked fourth in the ICC Test ratings, against a side unranked because it had played insufficient matches. Pakistan, with 1947 ratings points, ahead of Australia, against Zimbabwe, with 183. Pakistan, with the fourth-ranked Test batsman in Younis Khan and third-ranked Test bowler in Saeed Ajmal, against Zimbabwe, whose highest-ranked bowler at No. 52 recently quit international cricket to become a Twenty20 freelancer and whose top-rated batsman was at No. 40. That same batsman, the captain Brendan Taylor, was not certain for this match going into it. He had missed the first due to the birth of his son.
A tour by Sri Lanka has been cancelled due to Zimbabwe Cricket not having enough funds. The board continues to seek loans even as the men on the field are owed outstanding dues. The staff too has not been paid. Still, 11 players took the field for the second Test after the hosts collapsed in the first. They fought, they held their nerve, and they managed to close out victory when it was expected they would choke - considering how rarely Zimbabwe have been in positions to win Test matches. A celebration is called for. Every individual involved in Saturday's win must be cheered.
The last moments of this win were superb. With 26 runs needed, the new ball was taken. Every Zimbabwean at the HSC willing the team on, ball by ball. Misbah-ul-Haq, threatening to pull off an Inzamam-ul-Haq, was on 79. In ran Tendai Chatara. First ball, Junaid Khan wafted and missed. Second, he let go. The third too was driven at and Junaid missed. On the fourth, he stabbed and fended it to gully, giving Chatara five wickets for the first time in Test cricket. Enter Rahat, in his third Test, with a maiden five-wicket haul in the match. He edged the fifth ball past the slips and sprinted down the other end, getting Misbah on strike. Nerves? You bet. The haal of Pakistan was behaal.
And then, the madness. Misbah pushed the ball into the covers, Rahat set off the blocks like a man possessed, only to be sent back. Too late. In came the throw from Hamilton Masakadza in the covers and Utseya was quick to play a hand in making history. The players jumped on each other, the players' enclosure was cleared, Shingirai Masakadza carrying the national flag broke out in cherubic celebration. Grant Flower, whose unbeaten 201 set up Zimbabwe's first Test win and who top-scored in the triumph over India in 2001, and who has been part of seven previous Test wins, had moist eyes. The joy was palpable.
It had been a long 12 years since Zimbabwe beat a top Test side. Since that memorable evening at the HSC, when Andy Flower drove Ajit Agarkat through the covers for four to seal a famous four-wicket win, Zimbabwe had failed to beat any other side than Bangladesh. Since then, the country has suffered many, many defeats - including World Cup disappointment every four years - and the crippling white-player exodus of 2004 and had its Test status stripped and been saddled with financial crisis after crisis. That 11 players even took the field for this Test was remarkable. That they beat Pakistan is massive.
Since the four-wicket win against India in June 2001, Zimbabwe had ended up on losing side of Tests 30 times out of 40. They lost to West Indies (four times), South Africa (thrice), Sri Lanka (five times), India (four times), Pakistan (four times), England (twice), Australia (twice), New Zealand (four times) and Bangladesh (twice). Their four wins all were against Bangladesh. It was a long and frustrating period.
There were good times in the past 12 years, no doubt, but too few. Beating Bangladesh in a five-ODI series at home in 2006 was a high (and Zimbabwe's 12th series win their entry into the international fold in 1983) as was the narrow win over Australia in the inaugural ICC World Twenty20 in 2007. In 2010 they beat India twice to reach the final of a tri-series at home, only to lose to Sri Lanka in the final. In 2011, a 12-match losing streak across formats was snapped when a target of 328 was chased over New Zealand, only the first time in Zimbabwe's history this had happened. On return to Test cricket in August 2011, after nearly six years of exile, Zimbabwe beat Bangladesh.
Since then, until today, the road was paved with obstacles, insecurities and defeats. This summer, Zimbabwe were beaten 5-0 by India and lost the Twenty20 and ODI series against Pakistan (they won the first ODI but lost the next two). In the first Test, Zimbabwe pushed Pakistan but in the end succumbed meekly. Few would have given them a chance at winning the second Test, but they have done it. Not only did they last five days, they beat Pakistan. They have drawn a Test series. They have moved to ninth on the ICC Test rankings and pulled Pakistan down to sixth.
Zimbabwe's international future is insecure, the heroes of the HSC win still not fully paid. Maybe this will change that, maybe it won't. But tonight, Zimbabwe cricket can celebrate. No one can take that away from them.