Zimbabwe, and the weather, take Test into fifth day
Close Australia 735 for 6 dec lead Zimbabwe 239 and 272 for 9 (Vermeulen 63, Ervine 53, Streak 42*; Bichel 3-55) by 224 runs
Andy Bichel stepped into the breach for Australia © Getty
Zimbabwe lived to take the fight into a fifth day in the first Test against Australia at Perth, albeit assisted by two rain breaks, the second of which resulted in stumps being drawn with Australia needing only one wicket for victory.
Australia had suffered from the absence through injury of Stuart MacGill and Jason Gillespie, and the rain just compounded that. In an effort to keep his players on the field in the final session, Steve Waugh took Brett Lee and Andy Bichel off, and used his slow bowlers in the quest for the last wicket. But Heath Streak and Raymond Price stood firm while adding 25 runs for the last wicket.
Showers had been forecast, and during the middle session the cloud cover became dark enough for Peter Willey and Srinivas Venkataraghavan, the umpires, to ask for the ground lights to be turned on. At one point, the Australians were so keen to finish off the innings before the rain came that Brett Lee was running back to the start of his bowling mark.
Zimbabwe had extended Australia's agony by fighting back from the loss of five wickets for 16 runs during the morning session. Sean Ervine, who had already made an impact in his third Test by taking four Australian wickets in their first innings, showed he was a dab hand with the bat during an 83-run eighth wicket stand with Streak. Ervine made the most of the lighter weight of the Australian attack, which featured irregular bowlers like Darren Lehmann, Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting, before the second new ball was introduced. When it came, Bichel broke through with a beautifully-pitched inswinger that bowled him for 53.
Andy Blignaut, who survived a pair, continued the attack and when tea was taken, he and Streak had added 38 runs with Blignaut hitting 22 off 26 balls. But three balls after the resumption, he missed a delivery from Lehmann, and was stumped by Adam Gilchrist.
No sooner had Price arrived at the wicket than the rain that had been drizzly became heavier and the umpires, after a consultation, offered the batsmen the chance to leave the field. Seventy-four minutes were lost, before the players re-emerged for 41 more minutes of action. Then, the rain returned to provide a full stop to the day's play.
It had always been improbable that the Zimbabweans could survive for two days, even against the depleted attack, but the loss of a batsman as well set as Mark Vermeulen had been, caused a domino effect. He was entitled to feel some grief over his dismissal, as television replays showed that the ball from Brett Lee had not taken his bat but clipped his shirt instead on its way to Gilchrist. However the later batting damage was more due to poor shot selection than anything special from the bowlers. Stuart Carlisle, who had helped Vermeulen to add 99 for the third wicket, was unable to maintain his concentration. In the act of attempting a sweep shot to Darren Lehmann's part-time left-arm spin, he top-edged the ball to first slip where Matthew Hayden took the catch.
Bichel was then brought back by Steve Waugh to instant effect, his third ball trapping Craig Wishart leg before wicket when he had scored only eight. He soon added Tatenda Taibu, getting him to prod forward diffidently and edge one through to Gilchrist. With the score still on 126, Craig Evans played all around a straight ball from Lehmann to be bowled.
At that stage, and then again after tea, the champagne corks were ready to be popped. But frustratingly for Australia, the rain proved to be Zimbabwe's staunchest ally. All eyes will be on the weather forecasts tonight. Were Zimbabwe to escape from Perth with an undeserved draw tomorrow, Hayden's world-record celebrations would be muted indeed.