When the music stopped at Harare's Castle Corner

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Rayudu: Zimbabwe should've batted better (1:06)

Ambati Rayudu believes Zimbabwe batted poorly as they succumbed to a big defeat against India in the 2nd ODI of the 3-match series. (1:06)

The Harare Sports Club is the beating heart of Zimbabwe cricket. It is a place of fun and a source of pride. Only four grounds in the world have hosted more ODIs than its count of 128. Unlike its peers - Melbourne, Sydney, Sharjah and Colombo - it is also steeped in pain.

"What a shame," proclaimed a lone occupant of Castle Corner on Monday. It was a white board.

Usually that part of the ground is filled with die-hard fans of Zimbabwe. Making music and dancing to it. It had still been populated at twilight on a brilliant Sunday in July 2015, when Sikandar Raza was savouring the moment after leading his country to its first ever T20I victory over India. It was roaring when Elton Chigumbura embarrassed the Australians in September 2014, with a little help from Prosper Utseya.

In June 2016, Raza and Chigumbura fell in the space of two balls. Not long after, Zimbabwe were all out for 126. And Castle Corner was abandoned.

Mitigating factors first. Their second-highest scorer over the last 18 months, Sean Williams, was brought into the XI but injured his finger soon after the toss. So the hosts had to make do with ten men, which was a greater handicap when they lost the toss again and had to bat with frighteningly grey clouds stalking the ground. Zimbabwe had a tough enough job when Harare was bathed in sunshine on Saturday, when they were rounded up for 168.

Damning evidence, now. Zimbabwe were 106 for 3. The pitch did not have much grass on it, and some of the shots played by Vusi Sibanda indicated its pace and bounce were more or less true. The ball kept low when it hit the odd crack, but otherwise it came onto the bat and India helped the batsmen's cause by bowling shorter than they had in the first ODI. Zimbabwe should have got 250. Maybe more.

For most of his hour and a half at the crease, Sibanda defined the potential coaches and selectors had seen in him before they thrust him into international cricket in November 2003, a month after his 20th birthday. One of his pulls screamed past midwicket, to his left, which is proof of the batsman picking the ball up early and trusting the bounce, which is vital to playing a horizontal-bat shot well. In the 15th over, he stood tall against Jasprit Bumrah's pace and laced a drive to the cover boundary. Awkward action and constricting angle into the right-hander be damned.

Zimbabwe had found a foundation, from 39 for 3 in the 10th over. This recovery was because the batsmen had learned from their mistakes. Most of them took guard outside their crease to negate the swing.

Chamu Chibhabha, who could have been lbw in the second over to Barinder Sran's first ball two days ago, had opened up his stance to see the seam coming out of the left-arm quick's hand better and also reduce the chances of his front foot going towards off stump and leaving him vulnerable to the indipper.

Sibanda punished bad balls whether they were from the fast bowlers or the spinners. An extra-cover drive when left-arm spinner Axar Patel overpitched was simply regal. And he was even able to make up for his partner Raza's slow scoring. The fourth-wicket partnership put on 67 runs in 92 balls, of which 42 were gobbled up by Raza to make only 16.

The fans in Harare began to hope. Makhaya Ntini was delighted when Sibanda reached his half-century. The interim head coach traded his broom for a towel, which he waved like it was a chequered flag in an F1 race. By the time Zimbabwe got to the finish line, though, they were simply broken. The patrons who frequent Castle Corner did not want to see their team like that.

Batting coach Lance Klusener has said, "There is no doubting their talent." The television commentators have echoed the same. But the tone of those words is often sombre. Like they think there is some inexplicable force in Zimbabwe that prevents the blooming of this talent. How else do you explain a player of Sibanda's skill having an ODI average of 24.19 and a strike-rate of 63.43? Shot selection is clearly an issue - he hit Yuzvendra Chahal to long-on minutes after the legspinner had claimed a double-strike - but shouldn't he know that after playing 125 matches?

Lack of cricket, and quality opposition, have been given as reasons for Zimbabwe's decline. Over the past five years, Pakistan have come for two full tours - Tests, ODIs and T20s - and a third time to play limited-overs cricket. South Africa and Australia played Zimbabwe in a tri-series in August 2014 and New Zealand have looked in once.

It isn't a lot, and not every team has come with their strongest XI. But Hashim Amla, Faf du Plessis, Dale Steyn, Mitchell Starc, Michael Clarke and Mitchell Johnson were there in 2014. Misbah-ul-Haq, Younis Khan and Saeed Ajmal in 2013. Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor in 2015. The best thing you can learn competing against players of that calibre is how to absorb and retaliate against pressure and it shouldn't take hundreds of matches to do so.

On Monday, Zimbabwe clawed their way out of a hole only to take a running start and leap right back into it, and a second-string Indian side won the series while losing only three wickets. It made you wonder if the case was a little more dire.

It made you wonder if what Alan Butcher, a former Zimbabwe coach, tweeted was right. "They lack enough quality first and foremost."