New Zealanders gallop to sensational win
If this New Zealand team was a racehorse, it would probably need to be swabbed. It had no right, in the eyes of its detractors, to force a 0-0 draw in its recently-completed three-match Test series in Australia. Now it has gone further by reversing previous form lines and seizing a sensational 23-run win over Australia in Melbourne in the opening match of the VB Series of one-day internationals.
Australia had won 18 of its last 21 one-day internationals on entering this fixture; New Zealand only 8 of its last 28. And, as the match began, the form held true: the Australians needing no greater encouragement than the prospect of receiving the first chance to bowl on a lively pitch to puncture the visitors' top and middle order.
Pacemen Brett Lee (3/43) and Glenn McGrath (2/47) were irresistible early as the combination of accurate bowling and poor shot selection brought the Black Caps' score crashing to a dismal 7/94 inside 27 overs.
But the course of this match was defined by its second session rather than its first.
After New Zealand had mustered a moderate 8/199 from its 50 overs, it faced the potential handover of a bonus point by the time that Australia clattered to 2/95 from just 15 overs.
Yet, much like Chris Harris (63*) and Daniel Vettori (30) had done with a stirring exhibition of lower order batting earlier in the day, so its bowlers hit back brilliantly.
Ricky Ponting (45) ignited the run chase but the Australians' batting generally proved lacklustre. Chris Cairns (3/42) and Shane Bond (3/53) shattered the middle order; there was a disastrous mix-up between Damien Martyn (24) and Steve Waugh (15) which led to the latter's run out; and the Australians' lower order proved nowhere near as resilient as that of their opponents. In the end, they simply didn't have enough resources left to gather the runs they needed.
Ponting's early strokemaking was outstanding but he lost concentration, responding in frustrated fashion to New Zealand captain Stephen Fleming's increasingly restrictive and astute field settings by lifting a catch to fine leg off Bond. Michael Bevan (27), often the chief architect of Australian wins, also suffered a lapse - slashing at a short delivery from the same bowler to send the ball spiralling to third man.
Even at 4/135, there was little to hint at an Australian decline. But, when barely a muscle in Martyn's body twitched as Waugh called for a third run from a shot played through mid on, it precipitated a collapse.
It was just as well for the New Zealanders, for their part, that they had earlier been able to rely on the ever-dependable Harris to lift them from similar peril. His sensible accumulation of runs, and unhurried progress, was a lesson to virtually every other player on the ground. With the possible exception, that is, of Vettori and Scott Styris (23), whose ability to combine with him in defiant lower order partnerships proved crucial. The union of 72 between Harris and Vettori - a record for the eighth wicket for New Zealand in one-day internationals - was a perfect study in measured batting.
All the while, the Australians acquiesced in the Kiwis' escape from ruin. They also lapsed in delivering their overs slowly - an indiscretion from which they seemed fortunate to escape without penalty from match referee Hanumant Singh.
And the errors were then compounded as they permitted imaginative captaincy, menacing bowling and the apparent lure of a bonus point to derail their progress.
The Black Caps' march to victory could not even be stalled by unruly elements in the crowd. Regrettably, play was stopped for eight minutes in mid-evening as members of a noisy contingent in the bowels of the Great Southern Stand sought to target at least one member of the fielding team with a stream of projectiles.
Order was only restored when a battalion of police officers and security staff descended upon that part of the stadium to evict more than 200 offenders. It was a shameful blight on the match, though by no means the first such incident in Melbourne in recent years.
As matters transpired, it wasn't a great night for the local team either.
Australia's performance rapidly developed into a near replica of its last loss in this competition. That occurred at exactly the same stage of the tournament nearly two years ago to the day.