February 1, 2002

South Africa reach VB Series finals - and Australia face daunting task

Less than a week ago South Africa were languishing at the foot of the VB Series table. On Friday night, however, Shaun Pollock's team became the first side to qualify for next week's finals with a crushing 67-run victory over New Zealand at the WACA in Perth.

In winning South Africa picked up their second bonus point of the series, the significance of which is that it makes an already awkward task for Australia back at the WACA on Sunday even more difficult. Despite being hammered on Friday, New Zealand could also reach the finals if Australia fail to take maximum points of South Africa on Sunday.

Set 271 to win, New Zealand never really got going after Makhaya Ntini had struck two early blows for South Africa. There was a belligerent 46 from Craig McMillan in the middle of the innings, but New Zealand lost wickets regularly all along the way and South Africa's 270 for five was at no stage under serious threat.

In fact, New Zealand found themselves in the unusual position of having to decide whether it would make sense to pursue the 217 that would have denied South Africa their bonus point. The complication in this equation, of course, is that by allowing the South Africans the extra point, New Zealand have almost certainly given themselves a slightly better chance of reaching the finals at Australia's expense.

Of course, New Zealand would obviously have loved to have been masters of their own fate by beating South Africa and after sending Shaun Pollock's side in to bat and reducing them to 35 for four, this ambition appeared well within their reach.

But, as was the case in Adelaide last Sunday, Jonty Rhodes and Mark Boucher dragged their team back into the match. In Adelaide the pair added 86 for the fifth wicket; this time around then partnership went on to reach 138.

It must have been heartbreaking for New Zealand, coming after Dion Nash seemed to have made light of the absence of Shane Bond and Chris Cairns in a devastating seven-over opening burst that brought him three for 20.

But Rhodes and Boucher batted with enormous common sense and application to put the innings back together again and the longer the stayed there, the more New Zealand missed Bond and Cairns. Boucher finally went tamely for 58, chipping Chris Harris to midwicket, but then Rhodes moved to only his second one-day century before Shaun Pollock went on the rampage.

Boucher was out in the 41st over, allowing the South African captain time to play himself in and survive a chance when Harris dropped a simply catch. It is difficult to recall when a team was last made to pay so dearly and so immediately for a mistake.

Pollock was dropped in the 48th over on 27. In the 49th over, bowled by James Franklin, he doubled his score, hitting the left-arm seamer for four successive sixes. The 27 was a record for one-day cricket in Australia and only three off Sanath Jayasuriya's world record of 30 in an over.

And Pollock wasn't quite finished. He scored 15 more off the final over of the innings to end with 69 off 34 deliveries with six sixes and a four. Rhodes, meanwhile, allowed his captain to get on with it, finishing the innings on 107 not out.

It is fair to say that without Rhodes, Pollock might never have been in the position to tee off and it was fitting that the little Natalian earned the man of the match award at the end of the game.

South Africa took 72 off the last five overs of their innings and, to all intents and purposes, the match had been snatched away from New Zealand with a suddenness that might have startled even the South Africans. Certainly, the Australians, back in their hotel, would have blinked in astonishment.

The stage is set, then, for a titanic clash back at the WACA on Sunday. It is certainly possible that Australia could win - their record against South Africa in important matches will encourage them - but can they earn the all-important bonus point. New Zealand will hope not.