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Then realities were checked and AB de Villiers's team swept to victory by 61 runs to wrap up the rubber with a match to spare. But first there was fun and games, at least from a Zimbabwean perspective.
John Nyumbu bowled a sweeping Hashim Amla via his gloves - yes, really - before derailing the express train known as Quinton de Kock with the help of a fine diving catch in the covers by Elton Chigumbura.
And that after De Kock had matched Jonathan Trott's record for the fewest number of innings needed to reach 1000 runs in ODIs. They both did it in 21. De Villiers thought he had smeared a leg-side delivery from Prosper Utseya down leg and duly set off on a single. Except that the ball had not made it past wicketkeeper Richmond Mutumbami, who effected the runout.
"I thought there were two runs there," De Villiers said. "But the sound of [batting partner] Faf's [du Plessis's] voice was, 'Oh my goodness! What are you doing?'"
JP Duminy was bowled around his legs by probably the only delivery from Utseya that will ever turn and bounce.
Critically, Faf du Plessis hung tough for his second 50 in as many innings, a gritty 55, and shared the only half-century stand of the innings, 69 with Duminy. Somehow SA got themselves to 257 before they were dismissed for just the third time in 34 ODIs against Zimbabwe. But instead of complementing their bowlers' efforts, Zimbabwe's batsmen undermined them.
The nuggety Sean Williams' 55 was the home side's only batting performance worth noting until Neville Madziva, Nyumbu and Vitori played with pluck and passion at the end of the innings.
The series ends with a dead rubber at the same venue tomorrow.