Andy Balbirnie experienced joy and pain on his 200th game for Ireland, able to celebrate his eighth one-day international century but having to leave the field with suspected concussion 21 runs later.

He was being assessed as to his future participation on the tour but if he returns for Saturday’s second one-day international, Zimbabwe will have a 1-0 lead in the three-match series after another dramatic finale between these teams.

Paul Stirling, on his return to the side, took over the captaincy and everything seemed to be plain sailing as Ireland defended 288. Indeed after 27 overs, Zimbabwe were 121 for four, some 37 runs short of their DLS target. But Stirling then decided to bring George Dockrell, his sixth bowler, into the attack, just three days after being hit for 18 by Ryan Burl which effectively decided the final T20 match in favour of the hosts.

Who was at the other end when Dockrell came on to bowl? None other than Ryan Burl and after Sikander Raza had taken a single off the first ball of the over, it was Dockrell v Burl again – with an almost identical result. The next three balls went for 4, 6, 4 and, in all 17 came off the over.

The momentum was now with Zimbabwe and they scored 33 off the next four overs. However, with rain about, Stirling finally returned to his two front line bowlers, Josh Little and Mark Adair. Little conceded only three singles in the 33rd over and when the umpires took the players off the field, Adair had conceded only a wide from the first three balls of his over,

Those eight legitimate deliveries were enough to keep Ireland two runs to the good as they watched the rain fall lightly but steadily.

But it wasn’t over. When the rain stopped, Zimbabwe needed 39 off 22 balls – 214 off 37 overs, their final target – and the drama just kept on coming.

Burl reached his 50 with a four off Josh Little and then hit the next ball for six. Thirteen needed off the last over. A superb throw from Curtis Campher ran out Burl coming back for the second to retain the strike. But in came Brad Evans who hit his first ball for six over cover.

Graham Hume, entrusted with the last over, however, hit back immediately to trap him leg before wicket. Five wanted off two. New batsman Wellington Masakadza took a single to leave Clive Madande in strike needing four to win off the last ball. It was full and straight but he thumped it to wide long-on, one bounce, to win the game.

The first half of the day had been dominated by a record third wicket stand of 212 between Balbirrnie and Harry Tector whose phenomenal form in ODIs continues. The stand beat the previous best third wicket partnership of 179 between Stirling and Tector in Ireland’s last ODI, against New Zealand last July, and Tector finished 101 not out, his third century in his last four ODI innings and the eighth time he has passed 50 in his last 10.

Gareth Delany was the player to miss out as Balbirnie and coach Heinrich Malan picked the 11 they wanted with a first ODI cap for Stephen Doheny and a second for Graham Hume while Stirling, Lorcan Tucker and Josh Little were all back from franchise engagements. Andy McBrine, who has been here for the whole tour but was not in the ODI squad, also played his 50th consecutive ODI.

As Balbirnie had forecast it would be difficult up front and, having lost the toss, Ireland had to face the new balls at 9.15am.

Doheny failed to survive the second over, his leg stump uprooted by Victor Nyauchi but that let in the captain to join his old sparring partner Paul Stirling, just arrived from the UAE.

However, it was a disappointed Stirling who was walking back to the pavilion in the ninth over, trapped on the pad by a yorker from Richard Ngarava for 13. Stirling doesn’t normally show his emotion after getting out but it was etched all over his face as removed his helmet while he walked slowly away from the middle.

At 25 for two it was the expected slow start, although the two wickets weren’t in the plan. However Balbirnie and Tector patiently gained the initiative. The captain probably should have been caught on 18 by keeper Madende, but he didn’t lay a glove on it as he dived to his right, and when he reached 40 he was the seventh batsman to score 5,500 runs for Ireland.

His 50 duly followed from 81 balls with seven fours, two balls after the team 100 came up in the 27th over.

Tector, meanwhile, was also getting into his stride, happy to nudge the ones and twos and when he brought up his 50, from 74 balls in the 37th over it included only three boundaries. But the assault was about to begin.

Balbirnie had already taken 13 off a Ryan Burl over and the 200 partnership was the next landmark at the end of the 44th over. With the third wicket record stand already broken, the pair were on course to beat the long-standing partnership for any wicket of 227, by Kevin O’Brien and William Porterfield back in Kenya in 2007.

But it was not to be because of Balbirnie being forced to retire hurt, although ironically the third wicket did not fall until 229 runs had been added, when George Dockrell, thumped a full toss straight to cover.

Dockrell, who hit 12 off four balls, and Curtis Campher were both given licence to throw the bat and Campher didn’t last much longer, caught in the same position for eight, but by now all eyes were on Tector and his bid to bring up yet another hundred.

He was 87 not out at the end of the 45th over but only 94 not out four overs later, having faced just seven balls in that period. However, three successive twos took him to three figures and so exhausted was he that he could barely take off his helmet to celebrate.

With Tucker, also just arrived from UAE, adding 12 from his eight balls, Ireland finished with 288 for four, a total they could only have dreamt off at halfway.

In reply, Adair made the early breakthrough, and Hume followed up with the second , the ball after Innocent Kaia had been dropped at long leg.

Harry Tector with a superb running catch off his own bowling – he actually collided with Curtis Campher taking the catch – removed Craig Ervine and Little returned to have Gary Ballance caught at long leg.

The partnership of Sikander Raza and Burl, however kept Zimbabwe in the game. It was interrupted at 76 by the rain but the drama had only begun.