December 2, 2001

Warne down as Kiwis clutch valuable lead

It was down and very nearly out at times, but Shane Warne somehow found a way to hoist a punchdrunk Australia off the canvas on a frenetic third day of the Third Test against New Zealand at the WACA Ground in Perth today. By stumps, a phenomenal innings of 99 from Warne had permitted the Australians to reach relative safety with their first innings score of 351 after they had been reeling at a sorry 6/192 in the early afternoon.

There was some wonderful bowling, some wonderful fielding, and some more wonderful suffocation of Australia by New Zealand as the third day of this engrossing match began. But several fundamental lapses in concentration cost the Black Caps dearly, leaving them only to wonder at what might have been.

Nathan Astle, a hero yesterday, turned villain today when he spilled a catch to play an unwitting but central role in the defining piece of action of the day. And possibly even the entire Test match too.

Though there was ultimately tragedy awaiting him as he perished one run short of a maiden Test century, Warne survived that miss at 10 to mount the most productive innings of his entire first-class career. On a day replete with a series of bewitching twists and turns inspired by two of the best spinners in the game.

The bowling of Daniel Vettori (6/87) was of an electrically high standard early, his flight and guile impeccable in relatively unhelpful conditions.

Though the first 80 minutes passed without setbacks for Australia, Vettori was quick to consolidate the advantage that his team had earned courtesy of its first innings total of 9/534, driving stakes through the heart of the Australian cause by removing its two most experienced batsmen in the space of 20 telling minutes in the opening session.

Mark Waugh (42) was brilliantly caught by Shane Bond, low and to his left, at deep backward point and then Australian captain Steve Waugh (8) was deceived by a delivery of perfect length, edging a catch to wicketkeeper Adam Parore as he defended marginally inside the line of a ball that turned across him.

Further problems arrived for Australia on the other side of the luncheon adjournment.

The plucky Justin Langer (75), who remains easily the highest run-scorer of the series, gloved a catch to Parore as he hooked at Chris Cairns (2/86), though the dismissal was not without controversy as television replays suggested that the ball had been delivered from forward of the crease.

And then New Zealand captain Stephen Fleming summoned up visions of Australia's tour of India earlier in the year when he clustered men around the bat of Adam Gilchrist (0), attacked him immediately with spin, and promptly had him caught at short leg from another lovely Vettori delivery.

It was then that two doughty partnerships, each featuring Warne, extricated Australia from the mire.

The first - with a free stroking Damien Martyn (60) - yielded an invaluable 78 runs for the seventh wicket and then another 72 runs arrived in an eighth wicket stand with the stubborn Brett Lee (17).

Warne adopted the role of a corsair, generally expertly choosing which deliveries to defend and which to plunder. He rode his luck equally well.

Until, that is, he tried to play one attacking shot too many and lofted a high catch to Mark Richardson running a few metres in from his position at deep mid wicket.

He dodged the most threatening bullet when Astle was deceived at second slip by the speed of a ball that looped to him from the back of the bat as a Bond (1/74) delivery was defended. But there came another escape act at 16 as a Lou Vincent throw at the stumps from cover missed with a scrambling Warne short of his ground in attempting to complete a single. Another life was granted to him when Cairns grassed a caught and bowled chance at 51. And there was a further stroke of fortune at 80 when umpire Ian Robinson denied a beseeching appeal, decreeing that he had not edged a flailing drive at the luckless Chris Martin (1/88).

All the while, he unleashed crisp drives, cuts and pulls in a hand that perfectly balanced attack with defence.

Warne was also helped by a decline in the standard of New Zealand's out-cricket; where excellence had earlier prevailed, suddenly errors overtook the tourists' game. An overdose of short-pitched deliveries, in particular, permitted him the chance to issue horizontal bat shots with audacious authority and to leave deliveries with comfort when he chose not to be lured into playing strokes.

But, in a Test that continues to confound most understandings of normality, he then struck upon the most cruel of departures. With the final act of the day, he attacked a flighted delivery from Vettori but cracked it into the teeth of an eddying breeze, lobbing a catch to a gleeful Richardson in the shadows of the Inverarity Stand.

Warne, left high and dry on 99, cut a tragic figure on his exit from the ground; Vettori chanced upon his best Test figures in Australia; Richardson showed little restraint in showing a raucous crowd what he felt about the catch; and, New Zealand had fashioned a first innings lead of 183 runs. All this after the Australians had somehow avoided the prospect of having their country follow on for the first time in 144 Test matches.

It's rare for the emotions to become any more worn (or Warne) down than this.