October 8, 2000

Bulls outlast Redbacks in thrilling season-opener

Queensland has outlasted South Australia to win a thrilling season-opening Mercantile Mutual Cup clash between the teams by three runs here at the Allan Border Field in Brisbane this afternoon. In fading light, the Bulls clinched their victory when fast bowler Ashley Noffke (3/32 from ten overs) held his nerve to concede just three runs from the match's concluding over.

One which begins what promises to be an exciting new season of domestic cricket, it was a match of the highest quality. On a hard, straw-coloured pitch, and under predominantly blue skies, the conditions were decisively in favour of the batsmen and the two teams responded in kind - the home side amassing an imposing 7/273 after being invited to bat before the Redbacks responded with a brave 9/270. But it was not devoid of some superb bowling and wondrous fielding either. In truth in fact, it was two critical run-outs - together with Noffke's display of composure under intense pressure - which tilted the scales in the Bulls' favour as much as any other aspects of the day's play.

Until the fateful fiftieth over, there had been little to separate the two sides throughout the afternoon. The visitors' chase began poorly when David Fitzgerald (1) was trapped shuffling across his crease by Andy Bichel (1/63 off nine overs), but rose to a consistently high standard thereafter. Around two mini-collapses, Jeff Vaughan (55), Darren Lehmann (53), Chris Davies (39) and Greg Blewett (36) all played hands which threatened to guide the Redbacks to a rare win on Brisbane soil. In the end, the run-outs of Lehmann (out to an extremely close call following a direct hit from Matthew Hayden at backward point) and Blewett (who was well beaten by a sensational pick up and stump-shattering throw from Dale Turner at square leg) proved massive blows.

These two moments of brilliance in the field also helped set the dramatic stage from which the youthful Noffke was able to generate one of the most controlled closing overs of a domestic one-dayer in recent memory. With seven needed by the Redbacks off the final six balls, the tall right armer produced a succession of well aimed deliveries of full length that cramped middle order player Ben Johnson (41*) for room and prevented him from finding a way of striking the boundary that the visitors - needing to manipulate the strike carefully with just a solitary wicket to spare by this stage - probably required in order to triumph.

Earlier, a succession of handy performances most of the way down the order was responsible for hoisting the Bulls to their imposing tally. Jimmy Maher (64) and Martin Love (63) provided the most telling hands, but Bichel (34), Clinton Perren (30) and Leigh Carseldine (22) also offered useful, quickfire contributions. In an innings peppered with aggressive strokes through the leg side, Maher seized an early initiative with his capacity to make use of an outfield significantly faster than the one in evidence at this venue last season. For his part, Love played a more controlled hand, building his score meticulously with stylish driving through the arc between mid off and mid on at first before cutting loose late in his stay. Of the South Australians, newcomer Ryan Harris (2/35 from seven overs) stood out - adding a sensational catch with an outstretched left hand at long off to the vital wickets of Hayden (16) and Stuart Law (0) with successive deliveries at the bowling crease.

But this was all long before matters reached their gripping conclusion. Captivated, a previously raucous crowd of 2374 was reduced to watching the finish in a state of almost deathly silence. The tension was broken partially by the dismissals of Harris (out for a breezy 24 as a result of his first real mistake of the day - a mistimed cover drive which ballooned to backward point), Paul Wilson (9) and Peter McIntyre (0). As long as Johnson was demonstrating a consistent ability to find gaps in the field, though, the visitors always retained a hope of spoiling the locals' party and seizing the four points on offer for a victory under the brace of new rules in vogue in the Mercantile Mutual Cup this season. Just to add to the sense of theatre too, stopwatches needed to be produced in the pavilion to check on precisely how close the Bulls had come - perilously close, in fact - to surrendering a six-run penalty for bowling their overs too slowly. It was all quite some way to christen the new summer.

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