New Zealand v South Africa, 1st ODI, Auckland February 13, 2004

South Africa win a thriller

South Africa 226 for 5 (Smith 72) beat New Zealand 225 for 8 (Styris 60, Cairns 58) by five wickets

Makhaya Ntini celebrates one of his two wickets
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What once seemed a walk in the park turned into a battle in the trenches, as South Africa's start to the New Zealand tour began with a tense five-wicket win at Auckland. The target of 226 was achieved after the batsmen struggled on the slow pitch, and the ones who did get used to it didn't hang around for too long.

Boeta Dippenaar played the hero with 44 not out for South Africa, for when they were down and things didn't look good, he pulled out his bag of strokes, and kept the run rate under control towards the end of the innings.

A tight finish seemed unlikely when Graeme Smith and Herschelle Gibbs motored along at four and a half an over, with plenty of batting to come. But the slow pitch, which had caused them considerable trouble earlier, later came back to haunt them, and the rest of the batting line-up.

Smith and Gibbs began in macho fashion, attempting to punch a hole through the infield, but decided that caution suited the occasion, and settled with creating angles to score runs, instead. When they were more at ease, they chanced their arm and hit boundaries with good, clean power.

Gibbs, in particular, stepped up a notch when he struck a resounding blow, stepping outside the line of a delivery from Jacob Oram, and swinging it from outside off to midwicket. Then Kyle Mills was savaged some more, but just as the music began, the cops came calling. Daniel Vettori, who bowled two overs for nothing, floated one that turned savagely, nicked Gibbs's outside edge, and South Africa were 86 for 1.

Jacques Kallis partnered Smith past his half-century, and watched him get out for 72 after a series of attacking shots, the last of which ricocheted off the bat and onto the stumps (149 for 2). During his last series, Kallis had played whatever West Indies threw at him with ease, but nagging bowlers on a slow pitch were a different task. Three balls after Smith had gone, Vettori dismissed Kallis.

The bowlers were now on fire (or bunsen flame, considering most of them were medium-pacers), and Oram, in particular, gave the new batsmen a torrid time. Jacques Rudolph kept chasing deliveries outside off stump, and Dippenaar did whatever he could to survive. After a 60-run partnership, where runs were run brilliantly, Rudolph finally hit a ball back to Scott Styris. And then, to prove cliffhangers can be created out of nothing, Mark Boucher waltzed down the wicket, connected with thin air, and was bowled. But Shaun Pollock, in the company of Dippenaar, hit the winning runs in the last over.

The target, which looked competetive at best, was due to the efforts of two men who came together with the score reading 79 for 4. Chris Cairns and Styris rebuilt a New Zealand innings on the verge of collapse, using the ball's pace to their advantage and running like, well, South Africans. With the odd hit over the boundary, and a few to the fence, the run-rate edged upwards, and the game began slipping away from South Africa.

Styris (60) then took on Andre Nel, and an inside-out drive ended in Makhaya Ntini's hands on the boundary. Cairns got to his fifty soon after, and was bowled by Nel (191 for 6). But Brendon McCullum took charge at the death, and with wickets still tumbling, he struck quick runs and hauled New Zealand to 225 for 8.

South Africa are now one up in the six-match series, and have beaten New Zealand in 15 of their last 19 encounters. It can mean only one thing. If Fleming was motivated to improve the record before this match began, then he will be even more so now.