January 29, 2002

Bevan hot as New Zealand drops

For all of the changes made over recent times at the margins of the one-day game, certain factors do not dim in importance. One is the significance of dropped catches; another is the batting of Michael Bevan.

And rarely has either been more significantly showcased than in Australia's extraordinary come-from-behind two wicket win with three balls to spare over New Zealand in the teams' VB Series clash in Melbourne tonight.

By all rights, New Zealand should have secured its first appearance in a one-day international finals series on Australian soil for 11 years.

It had Australia in desperate peril at 6/82 as it pursued an extremely distant 8/245. And, with a pace trio of Shane Bond (4/38), Dion Nash (2/50) and Andre Adams (2/52) in red-hot form, the sealing of its place in this season's VB Series deciders with a fourth straight victory over the home country seemed a formality.

But the indomitable batting of Bevan (102*) - and brilliant support from Shane Warne (29), Brett Lee (27) and Andy Bichel (13*) - conjured a remarkable reversal. Not even the rehabilitation of that old limited-overs criminal - the bouncer - seems to have compromised the talents of the man often dubbed the world's greatest one-day batsman. For this was an astonishing innings, even by his own inimitable standards.

Albeit that lapses in the field were no less important to Australia's win. Bevan should have been caught with his score at 79 as he drove to twelfth man Brendon McCullum at cover, and a looping edge off the bat of Lee - on 2 - that travelled to Daniel Vettori at third man should also have been intercepted.

But they went down and, in an outcome that throws positions in the finals of this three-cornered series wide open again, so did a demoralised New Zealand. The result left the Kiwis clinging to a narrow four-point lead at the top of the competition points table over both Australia and South Africa and ensures that each of the three sides still has genuine claims on a berth in the finals.

The story of the match might have been the story of all of the preceding trans-Tasman rivals' battles in the series.

The New Zealanders batted first and, despite failing to mount a sizeable opening partnership, scrambled their way to an impressive total. Australia, having already portrayed chinks in its armour with the ball and in the field, was then harried into consistent error with the bat.

The home team's upper order was again suffering maladies for which there seems no antidote. As Adam Gilchrist (18) half-drove and half-cut, he chopped the ball into his stumps off an underedge; Ricky Ponting (8) snicked to second slip as he played off the deadly combination of the back foot and an outside edge; Mark Waugh (21) hooked off a top edge to deep backward square leg; and Damien Martyn (6) drove straight to cover point.

At 4/53, matters were grim. Humiliation was then courted as Steve Waugh (7) fished at a ball leaving him and Ian Harvey (12) cut, and top edged, with economical movement of his feet.

With chances to attain a finals berth of their own rapidly passing them by, and with a number of their players' rights to a place in the side being ever more seriously questioned, it was an inauspicious time for the Australians to engage in another portrayal of vulnerability.

Yet, with Bevan at the helm, the Australians instead became a model of invincibility.

He lifted the tempo in a flash, spotting and seizing upon gaps in the field and hitting the ball into them with the precision of a surgeon and the accuracy of a laser beam. Where New Zealand suddenly dallied, Bevan suddenly hurried. Though his manipulation of the strike was outstanding, his confidence in his partners and his urgent running between the wickets were also lessons in one-day skill.

With Warne, he added 61 runs in a stubborn partnership for the seventh wicket. Another 81 flowed in an association with Lee for the seventh, and he and Bichel then garnered an unbroken 24 for the ninth. In the process, he also led an acceleration that saw runs plundered at a rate of better than eight an over during the concluding 11 overs of the contest.

About the only thing he didn't do was hit the winning runs - that task falling to Bichel as he smashed two of the match's closing three deliveries powerfully through point.

New Zealand had earlier been as slow to start as it was to finish, slumping quickly to 2/19 after it had won the toss and gained the chance to bat first on a true pitch.

But it swiftly engineered a recovery that put the opposition's top order to shame, relying on controlled batting from Chris Cairns (55), Stephen Fleming (50), Chris Harris (41) and Craig McMillan (34) to ascend to its total.

It was only much later in the match that the quality of the revival was trumped.