Auckland batsmen succumb to first real challenge
When Martin Guptill top-edged an attempted pull off Ethy Mbhalati and Farhaan Behardien took the catch at deep-square leg, Auckland were 10 for 2. What was obvious was that they were in trouble. What was not so obvious from just that scoreline was that it was the first time in the tournament that they found themselves under pressure.
Auckland chased in both their qualifiers and their first match of the tournament proper. When they won the toss in Durban, they decided to chase again and why not? The first three times had them restricting the opposition to scores that would be considered below par on any pitch - the most they conceded was 137 - with shrewd bowling. From there, the script wrote itself.
They were able to bat with relative freedom and were successful every time. Not just triumphant but easily so. At most, they lost four wickets and took 17.4 overs to win and they beat the Pakistan, English and Indian champions. But they could not do the same to the South African title-holders, Titans, who had Auckland up against it and made them look ordinary in the process.
Auckland's plan unraveled from the beginning when Jacques Rudolph and Henry Davids put on an opening stand of 74, which lasted into the ninth over. Previously, Auckland have allowed the opening pair to last only until the fourth over and no first-wicket stand was higher than 23 against them.
Kyle Mills can be credited with most of tightness at the top. He has not conceded above 5.75 runs an over until today, when he was taken for 10.50 an over. The control Mills showed was not as consistent as it has been before. He still beat the bat but Rudolph counteracted by walking across his stumps and Davids by charging him.
Azhar Mahmood and Ronnie Hira were able to stop the charge but only until Mills came back on and Farhaan Behardien got hold of him. Unlike the other opposition Auckland have faced, Titans were willing to see off the strangling period and build to a crescendo. They had also learned from their previous mistakes. Against Perth on Saturday, Titans were off to a flier but ended up with fewer runs than expected after Brad Hogg and Nathan Rimmington made run-scoring difficult for them in the middle overs.
Still, the larger total to chase did not have to cause too many nerves in the Auckland camp since they have had balls to spare in each of their previous endeavours. "I was happy with the score," Gareth Hopkins, the Auckland captain, said. "I thought that was just a little bit above par and if we had batted well we would have got it."
What Auckland needed was to replicate those performances: a fairly quick start, someone to anchor the chase and the ability to not panic if they lost a few wickets. Lou Vincent managed to send Ethy Mbhalati into the stands in the first over but that was as close as Auckland got to a repeat.
Although they were able to deal with pace and bounce without a problem - thanks to their weeks of preparation beforehand - Alfonso Thomas' seam movement presented a different challenge. Vincent succumbed to it, before Guptill misread the slower ball bouncer from Mbhalati.
Mahmood, who carried them through in the last two matches, and Anaru Kitchen, who has acted as finisher, were still there and showed signs of continuing. But when Mahmood was caught at slip, Auckland's middle order was exposed for the first time. "We've got talented guys who can score quickly but probably haven't had to bat in a pressure situation in a couple of weeks," Hopkins admitted. And their shot selection let them down. "We're a side that likes to stay aggressive and keep going for our shots but maybe we erred too much on the side of attacking."
The batsmen could not control their pulls off the short ball and picked out fielders. The next three wickets fell in that fashion and Auckland were lucky that Andre Adams prevented them from the ignominy of the lowest Champions League total. He too, eventually fell to the pull.
Despite the margin of defeat, Hopkins said Auckland will not lose hope, especially because with one win under their belt, they remain in contention for the playoffs. "We'll stay confident and positive. We've got two more games and if we win both of those, we're through to the semi-finals. We need to move on quickly and we will."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent