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January 31, 2010
As Britain's Andy Murray faltered in his attempt to win his first Grand Slam title taking on world No.1 Roger Federer in the Australian Open final in Melbourne, a more absorbing sporting contest took place in Perth. Having bowled out Pakistan for 212, Australia were made to fight every inch for the two-wicket win that handed Pakistan their second 5-0 sweep in history. Fittingly, it was Michael Hussey, Australia's most valuable player for a scrap, who steered them home with an unbeaten 40.
After Clint McKay set the tone with 4 for 35, there was a welcome return to form for Ricky Ponting, whose 55 gave Australia the early initiative which was never entirely abandoned despite a tigerish performance from Pakistan's spinners. Australia had begun the series with a brilliant chase at the Gabba and finished off the rout with Hussey again there to oversee victory, which was achieved in the last over courtesy a no-ball. They will go into the ODIs against West Indies in buoyant mood, while Pakistan look at their calendar for the few months - which only includes Twenty20s until July - still disheveled and searching for their mojo.
After four one-sided affairs, it was good to witness a contest in the last match. Defending a low total, Pakistan's only chance was to bowl Australia out. They took two wickets inside the fielding Powerplay as the openers fell to aerial shots, but the way Ponting was playing, Australia looked on course for a comfortable win. His first ball was fended wide of the slips for four, and two strokes soon after were especially memorable - an incredible back-foot punch to a length ball and a caressed nudge past square leg. Two more controlled leg-side boundaries had Ponting off to a flier.
Mohammad Asif had been the best Pakistan bowler in this series, but today it was the spinners who scrambled Australia's intentions and turned a walk in the park into a tiptoe through a minefield. On a pitch that had showed signs of cracking after Pakistan's innings, Shahid Afridi and Shoaib Malik, recalled for the specialist spinner Saeed Ajmal, made a fist of defending a modest total.
Afridi, the captain today, made the key breakthrough as the in-form Cameron White reached way outside off stump and dragged the ball onto his stumps in the 17th over. With that Ponting stepped down a notch, allowing Afridi and Malik to slowly apply the squeeze. After crossing fifty for the first time in nearly three months, Ponting danced down to Malik and picked out long-on. Not too long after Malik struck again when he lured Adam Voges out of his crease and an easy catch was held at midwicket. James Hopes never looked in command against spin and became Afridi's second when an outer edge was well taken by Younis Khan at slip. Australia had lost three wickets for 28 runs, and at 6 for 150, their performance was in danger of freefall.
But one man was still there. Hussey's tussle with Malik was especially compelling - Malik repeatedly tried to beat Hussey in flight, and each time Hussey rose to the challenge, using the depth of his crease well. Even when he wasn't to the pitch he was willing to take some chances, reaching out to steer the ball. A superbly placed late cut in the 44th over took the equation to 39 from 38 balls, but in the second over of the batting Powerplay Mitchell Johnson chased and nicked Naved-ul-Hasan behind.
Nathan Hauritz, coming off a maiden ODI fifty, eased the pressure with a spanking four in the next over before he turned his attention to Naved, steering a deliberate shot to third man. With fine leg up, Iftikhar strayed down leg and Hussey pulled four, cuing chants from that section of the crowd. Brilliant running, some nerves from the fielders and another controlled pull from Hussey allowed Australia scamper past the finish line with four deliveries to spare.
Earlier in the day, it had been Pakistan's batsmen who pressed the self-destruct button. The Australian fast bowlers - led by Ryan Harris, who added impressive control to his pacy offerings - shackled the Pakistan top order early in the piece. Umar Akmal, and Fawad Alam subsequently injected some momentum with half-centuries - only one other batsman got to double digits - but Pakistan were restricted to a total far below what they would have liked.
After opting to bat, Pakistan had taken 17 balls to put a run on the board and 48 to strike the first four. Harris, Johnson and McKay each struck in their first overs and a score of 3 for 17 after 13 overs summed up Pakistan's predicament. The three quicks landed the ball around an off-stump line, varied the length fractionally and found the tiniest bit of movement. McKay's first three overs were run-free out of a period in which Pakistan went five overs for a single run. Umar survived a couple of close calls early on, edging outside off and missing twice, but soon tightened up and looked confident and competent. Johnson returned and effected a run-out off his own bowling, after Umar dabbed a short ball and harried off, sending Malik on his way for 36.
The acceleration was smooth for a good stretch, with Fawad playing well. Between overs 21.2 and 34.2 there were only three boundaries as Hopes and Hauritz were able to operate largely unmolested, but with each run the pair added Pakistan inched towards a respectable total. Fawad timed the ball well from the start, getting off the mark with a controlled steer off a Johnson yorker, and then found the gaps far more consistently than any of the other batsmen did.
Umar raised his fifty from 87 balls but once the stand was broken - and it took a clever slower delivery from McKay to do it - Australia tightened the screw again superbly by taking the last six wickets for 54 runs in 53 deliveries; Harris took his tally to 13 wickets in three consecutive games and McKay snared 4 for 35. Despite pushing Australia to the limit under lights, a target of 213 wasn't enough.
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