It could have been anywhere in the world as Ireland faced a Zimbabwe XI in front of a small but respectful crowd. But it was actually the Harare Sports Club, and if Ireland's gift to their hosts was just making the trip, they seem determined not to hand out any presents on the field Ireland finished the first day of their Intercontinental Cup match on 340 for six with Andrew White and John Mooney, the pair who put on 224 against the Netherlands last month, still together with their unbeaten partnership already worth 71.
White resumes this morning on 97, thanks to his 11th boundary in the final over of the day but it was just as well he didn't hit another because no-one would have known he had scored a century. The scoreboard - there is no telephone link to the official scorers - was showing only 93. Still, it is already another invaluable innings from Ireland's Mr Reliable, playing his 183rd match for his country.
Coming to the middle at 157 for four, after captain William Porterfield was caught down the leg side two overs after bringing up his 50, he then lost Kevin O'Brien for a hard-hitting 71 which included 10 fours. But first in partnership with Gary Wilson, the in-form Surrey batsman, and then Mooney, White patiently accumulated and after 152 balls he is within three runs of his second century in three matches, having already compiled a sixth successive score of over 50 in the competition.
The only carelessness of the day came in the first session when, not for the first time, Paul Stirling got carried away with a fast start and, attempting to pull a short ball from Shingirai Mazakadza, the pick of the Zim pace bowlers, got a top edge and was easily taken at slip. It proved to be the first of three catches for home captain Vusimuzi Sibanda, with Niall O'Brien and Andre Botha following Stirling back to the pavilion and before the 14th over was complete, Ireland were 71 for three.
But Porterfield reined himself in - although he did hit the only six of the day - and was content to watch Kevin O'Brien, on the day he was named, along with Trent Johnston, on the shortlist for the ICC Associate Player of the Year, dominate the fourth wicket stand of 86. O'Brien's bottom edge was the first of three catches held by wicket-keeper Regis Chakabv off the slow bowlers in a impressive display behind the stumps by Zimbabwe's third choice.
White, on 74, and Mooney, on 17, have both been given lives - and they will want to take full advantage today because they not only need to win the game, to keep alive any hope of reaching the I-Cup final, but also gain the first innings lead. And on a good pitch which is expected to get lower and slower, Ireland will need as many runs as they can get having chosen to bat first and going into the game with only one front-line spinner - Albert van der Merwe sitting it out along with Nigel Jones and Andrew Poynter.
Ireland have already realised that the easy bit in this Intercontinental Cup game in Harare will be scoring runs. Although their first innings total of 465 has been bettered only five times by an Ireland team, they must take 20 wickets to beat the Zimbabwe XI and the bowlers will have to be at the top of their game.
After the first three and a half hours they have managed just three and all have been taken by Trent Johnston, consistently Ireland's top performer in every game this season. But the 36 year old can bowl only so many overs - he has already bowled more than anyone else in the innings - and the rest of this Ireland attack will have to come to the party if they are to make inroads into a resolute home batting line-up.
It helps that Zimbabwean captain Vusi Sibanda has failed in the first innings. He made 209 against Kenya in this competition this year but if Ireland thought there would be a collapse following the quick exit of their best batsman, they were in for a rude awakening. Fortunately, they have two days left and they resume on Day 3 with a lead of 290. Admittedly, Ireland were handicapped by the absence of Andre Botha who was unable to bowl yesterday after injuring his right hand in a warm-up accident.
He needed two stitches between his middle fingers so it must be doubtful if he will bowl in the match and six other bowlers have, so far, been unable to make a breakthrough. Allan Eastwood was given only four overs with the new ball and, having been hit for four boundaries was not invited back, with William Porterfield preferring to use his two spare slow bowlers, Andrew White and Paul Stirling. They kept it tight but like the rest of the Irish attack, bar one, have not been threatening and the Zim batsmen seem determined not to make a mistake.
What errors there were were all in the field with John Mooney missed twice on his way to 87, both chances going to Sibanda who finished the innings with the remarkable statistics of four catches held and three dropped. Eastwood was also missed twice in three balls which may not sound so significant as he made only nine but he shared a last wicket partnership of 27 to help George Dockrell to an undefeated 30, almost three times his previous best score for Ireland. They could yet be vital runs.
At the start of the day, White needed only nine balls to score the three runs which completed his fifth century and his fourth in the I-Cup. He will have been disappointed to be dismissed almost immediately afterwards but he is now averaging a healthy 60 in the competition. If there is an I-Cup team of the year then he must be the first name on the team-sheet.
Even Trent Johnston couldn't help his country on day three at the Harare Sports Club. The talismanic opening bowler drew a blank in the wickets column as Ireland conceded 500 for the first time in the Intercontinental Cup and surrendered their hold on the trophy.
When the Zimbabwe XI passed Ireland's first innings total of 465 they left it mathematically impossible for the holders to reach this year's final and the task for William Porterfield's side on the last day is simple: avoid defeat. It should be straightforward on a pitch as flat as the one they encountered in Dambulla back in January but Ireland lost that one, after being bowled out for 202 in their second innings.
Today, time is on their side with only 96 overs left in the match and the Zimbabweans with a first innings lead of only 41 after three days will be in no position to declare until at least lunchtime. Ireland have still four wickets to take, which is one more than their weakened attack managed yesterday and the fact that Andrew White, with his non-turning off-breaks, bowled more than anyone only underlined Porterfield's problems.
He is, officially, without Andre Botha in this match after his accident in Tuesday's warm-up which resulted in two stitches in his bowling hand and Johnston went off in the final session with a recurrence of his knee problem and is another who will be kept in cotton wool ahead of Sunday's first one-day international. With two other members of their best bowling attack, Boyd Rankin and Alex Cusack left behind at home, recovering from injuries, it was hardly surprising that wickets were so hard to come by.
They went into the day knowing it would be difficult - but not this hard. Allan Eastwood, who has probably bowled himself out of the ODI series, and George Dockrell were the biggest disappointments, and it was 46 overs before John Mooney made the breakthrough, ending the fourth wicket stand at 237. But it proved a false dawn as Keith Dabwenga, happy to play second fiddle when Sean Williams was compiling 178, then dominated a fifth wicket stand of 104 to bring up his team's second century, both of them much bigger than Ireland's individual best of 102.
The other two wickets came in the space of seven balls by Kevin O'Brien when Zimbabwe were still eight runs behind, but that was to be Ireland's last success of the day, and when the hosts took the lead, Ireland couldn't get back to the dressing room quickly enough, White and Paul Stirling bowling the last 14 overs in 32 minutes!
*This was only the 12th time in 758 matches that Ireland have conceded more than 400, and already there are only two higher than Zimbabwe XI's running total of 506 for six.
Ireland avoided any second innings embarrassment to easily draw the last game of their Intercontinental Cup campaign but the Harare Sports Club will, henceforth, have its own ignominious place in the record books. For the last 26 years, the West Indies' awesome total of 584 at Rathmines was the nadir for Irish bowling, but when the Zimbabwe XI passed that yesterday, the class of 2010 went to the top of the unwanted list.
Yes, it was a pitch flatter than any field in Holland and Andre Botha, Boyd Rankin and Alex Cusack were missing from their first choice attack but this was the Zimbabwe 2nd XI - only two will play in the one-day international series next week - and they batted nearly 40 overs more than Ireland's optimum batting line-up. William Porterfield refused to blame his bowlers, claiming "they all tried hard" but the blanks in the wicket column beside opening bowler Allan Eastwood and front line spinner George Dockrell from a combined total of 49 overs was surely not what the captain expected.
Indeed, Andrew White and Paul Stirling conceded just two and a half runs an over from their 40 overs as the other slow bowlers while Dockrell went at almost three and a half. John Mooney did try hard and was rewarded with two wickets and Kevin O'Brien and dependable Trent Johnston equally shared the other eight wickets. Indeed, Ireland had to take a third new ball to finish the innings and the 173.2 overs spent in the field is yet another unwelcome record. The formality of batting out 54 overs for the draw was just that although Paul Stirling failed for the second time in the match - he played on - and while Porterfield and Niall O'Brien put on a century stand for the second wicket - the only Irish one in the match (Zimbabwe had two plus one of 237) - still they couldn't bat out the day.
Two of the Zimbabwe slow bowlers did what Ireland's trio couldn't while home captain Vusi Sibanda came on as his side's eighth bowler to have Niall O'Brien caught down the leg side. The home side's total of 590 was more than any Ireland team have conceded in 758 internationals and but Porterfield said: "We knew it was a flat deck from the outset, and we got a pretty decent score (465) but I can't fault any of the bowlers. We didn't play bad cricket. We had them 100 for three and we were in with a sniff, but they got that big partnership (237 for the fourth wicket), the pair batted well and made good decisions. It was one of those things."
"Andre (Botha) going down at the start of day two didn't help. If it had been his left hand (injured) we might have got away with it. But that put more pressure on the other lads. "Obviously, it's disappointing when you go out and don't take wickets but it was difficult on that deck. There was only a small bit of slow turn so it was easy to play the slow bowlers."
Dockrell was the only spinner used yesterday as the Zimbabweans first went past the previous best total against Ireland at the Harare Sports Club - 517 in Graeme Hick's match in 1986 - and then, with their last pair at the wicket, the West Indies total.
It needed Kevin O'Brien's second intervention of the day to prevent Zimbabwe hitting 600 but it will be small consolation to this side who are consigned to a place in the record books - hopefully for a long time!
- Dabengwa takes a sweep shot
- The umpires
- Paul Stirling bowling
- Keith Dabengwa
- Keith Dabengwa celebrates his century
- Keith Dabengwa cuts
- The umpires
- Regis Chakabva defends
- Regis Chakabva hugs Sean Williams
- Regis Chakabva is caught by Paul Stirling at second slip
- Sean Williams
- Sean Williams celebrates his 150
- Sean Williams plays straight
- Sean Williams sweeps
- Trent Johnston bowling
- Sean Williams faces Kevin O'Brien