Astle and Cairns provide timely boost in six-wicket win for NZ
Nathan Astle's 13th century in One-Day Internationals but, more importantly, his second in his World Cup career, assured New Zealand of a six-wicket Super Six victory over Zimbabwe at Bloemfontein today.
Given the importance of New Zealand's remaining games against Australia and India, in their quest to reach the semi-finals of the World Cup, it was a timely display by Astle who finished on 102 not out. Just as satisfying was the 121-run fourth-wicket stand with Chris Cairns, who scored 54.
Both players have been below their best in the Cup to date, but today's batting will have gone a long way to boosting both players.
Astle had scored a century in his first World Cup game, against England in 1996 in India, but it had been a long drought until today and it was obvious from the delight when he hit four runs over extra cover that it meant a lot to him.
Skipper Stephen Fleming also continued to prosper in the rich vein of form that has been part of his World Cup while scoring 46, 40 of them from boundaries, at the top of the order while Astle played what was not so much of a traditional innings from him.
Rather than hitting, Astle played a controlled innings with few of the flourishes he is noted for.
Cairns too, put away the heavy artillery (unless a bad ball warranted the treatment) and worked the ball around for probably his longest innings of the summer. He had a life when dropped at backward square leg on 21 from Grant Flower's bowling. Substitute fieldsman Douglas Marillier dropped him from what should have been a comfortable take.
The 50-partnership between the pair came up off 69 balls and the 100-runs off 129 balls.
Given the sight of Cairns back at the bowling crease and taking two wickets for 16, it had to be a most satisfactory day for New Zealand as they look ahead. The all-rounder had bowled only four overs in earlier matches in the tournament, but his leg cutter removed Craig Wishart to a catch at first slip while Guy Whittall played a poor shot to edge the ball to wicket-keeper Brendon McCullum.
However, there were also problems again in the last few overs.
The sight of Zimbabwe at 106 for six wickets halfway through their innings proved a false dawn for New Zealand wrapping the innings up with ease.
Zimbabwe lost three wickets in 18 balls at one stage, and then had the bonus wicket of Andy Flower from a direct hit by Astle's throw from mid-off to the bowler's end stumps, New Zealand looked to be in complete control.
Circumstance proved an ideal incentive for diminutive wicket-keeper Tatenda Taibu to apply himself in partnership with captain Heath Streak.
They batted laboriously but were to have glorious reward for their work. Taibu achieved his maiden half-century off 73 balls with one six and three fours while he shared a 66-run stand for the seventh wicket before he was finally trapped leg before wicket for 53 by Chris Harris.
Harris and Daniel Vettori had been bowling especially effectively on the slow-paced pitch but the last five overs of the innings proved a bonanza for Streak and Sean Ervine.
They dined out in an almost unbelievable manner, especially given the problems the earlier batsmen experienced. Streak made light of the problems and unleashed some perfectly executed cricket shots to get the score rolling. Seventy-seven runs came in five overs, and off the last 10 overs Zimbabwe scored 101.
Ervine was more of an aggressor, hitting his 31 not out off 14 balls, while Streak was 72 not out off 84 balls - the result of his earlier endeavours in righting his sinking ship.
It was an impressive display from Zimbabwe, and equally unimpressive from the bowlers who lacked the variation to trouble the batsmen. Harris, who went into his last over having conceded only 22 runs, saw 23 taken from his last six balls.
Vettori also suffered with 52 off his 10 overs. And Andre Adams, who was called from the wilderness to bowl the last over had 26 hit from it, and ended with one for 54 off five overs.
Zimbabwe's Cup effort was starting to look a little ragged around the edges. They lost spinner Brian Murphy between innings to a torn calf muscle while during the second innings Whittall limped off having strained a hamstring muscle. And after suffering an injury while batting Andy Flower never fielded during New Zealand's innings.