Bond the key in trans-Tasman clash
It's a myth that's been doing the rounds for while. It's one that's built on a notion that New Zealand raise their game against Australia, that they develop an extra cladding of steel when faced with their rivals from across the Tasman Sea. For a few weeks, at the end of 2001 and start of 2002, there seemed to be some truth in it, when Stephen Fleming and his men ousted Australia from their own VB Series finals. But in the four years hence, there was just one team upping their intensity in these contests, and it wasn't New Zealand.
If you're a numbers man, you might just be tempted to laugh at the thought of a contest. In the last 17 games, starting with the final match of the aforementioned VB Series, Australia have pocketed 15. Barring the first game of the Chappell-Hadlee Trophy in 2004, when New Zealand's lower-order sneaked a tight chase, and the latest clash in December last year, when they sensationally hunted down 332, it's been a flogging. Australia have romped home by a margin of 40 runs or more on seven occasions. Enough said.
Things began looking up again late last year, though, when two of three games in the Chappell-Hadlee series went right down to the wire. New Zealand, as always, start as underdogs but they possess a spearhead who's troubled Australia in the past, a lower-order that's often thwarted them, and a captain who's out-thought them on a few occasions. Shane Bond's fitness, which is set to be assessed later today, will be crucial. In the six games against Australia, he's knocked over 22 wickets. He averages a stunning 10.45 and has been part of a winning side in three of the six clashes.
Ricky Ponting, who's almost his bunny after falling six times in six games, knew the enormity of the threat but wasn't concentrating on Bond alone. "He does the role that Brett Lee does for us," he said, "and he's got an unbelievable strike-rate in one-day cricket. He's also got a very good record against Australia. But having said that Kyle Mills has had a good time in the Champions Trophy - think he's taking 6 for 80 in this series - and the conditions were suit that style of bowling. We've spoken about those two to get our plans in tact."
The pitch set to be used for the game is the same one where Makhaya Ntini enacted his war-dance against Pakistan. Both captains didn't think it would be as lively but both admitted that fast bowlers could be the key. Ponting spoke about Brad Hogg, the chinaman bowler, being in the mix but the nature of the surface could just mean that they go ahead with an unchanged side. New Zealand will be wary of Brett Lee - who's managed 36 wickets against them at 19.77 - and a batting line-up that's beginning to look ominous.
Barring Fleming and the injured Scott Styris, New Zealand have worries at the top. Their lower order, though, has often turned into their strength and Ponting admitted that they needed a plan against a bunch who plundered 99 off the last ten overs against Pakistan. "We have to have to look at those guys - McCullum, Oram, Vettori," he continued, "who're dangerous hitters at the end. We did come unstuck in the last Chappell-Hadlee game we played after they got 332. We need to come up with the right strategy, right field placements to restrict those guys at the end."
But did his side have any weaknesses that New Zealand could exploit? Pat came the classic Aussie reply: "None".
Australia 1 Shane Watson, 2 Adam Gilchrist (wk), 3 Ricky Ponting (capt), 4 Damien Martyn, 5 Michael Clarke, 6 Andrew Symonds, 7 Michael Hussey, 8 Brett Lee, 9 Mitchell Johnson, 10 Nathan Bracken, 11 Glenn McGrath.
New Zealand 1 Lou Vincent, 2 Stephen Fleming (capt), 3 Nathan Astle, 4 Peter Fulton, 5 Hamish Marshall, 6 Jacob Oram, 7 Brendon McCullum (wk), 8 Daniel Vettori, 9 James Franklin, 10 Shane Bond, 11 Kyle Mills.
Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is staff writer of Cricinfo