Nerveless Vettori and Elliott lead New Zealand to final
Grant Elliott and Daniel Vettori guided an incredibly thin batting line-up, blighted by injuries, to a modest target which was made more difficult to achieve by the variety in Pakistan's bowling attack. The New Zealand batsmen, who came out blazing at the start, made sure Pakistan never got back-to-back wickets, and the required run-rate never became too high for a well-timed batting Powerplay to redress. The five-wicket victory broke New Zealand's semi-final hoodoo, both against Pakistan and in world events.
Pakistan will rue two turning points, around the 40-over mark of each innings. In the first half of the day, after Pakistan's top order had failed, the 19-year-old Umar Akmal fought back with a free-spirited and sensible half-century. But just when he would have looked to open up and take the batting Powerplay he became a part of a 32-for-5 collapse thanks to a rare ordinary call from Simon Taufel. During the chase, with the run-rate slowly creeping past seven, and the batsmen struggling to stay abreast, Younis Khan dropped a dolly at cover from Elliott. He was on 42 off 78 balls then, New Zealand required 69 from 64, and only one four and two sixes had been hit in the preceding 21 overs.
That drop, off Mohammad Aamer, came during an extremely tight period when New Zealand scored only 13 runs off four overs. With 59 required off the last eight, Vettori and Elliott called for the Powerplay, and with 10 and 14 coming off its the first and third overs, the pressure evaporated.
Before that there was pressure aplenty. Both Brendon McCullum and Martin Guptill came with a clear brief: get as many as possible in the first two Powerplays, and then the run-rate will be easy to manage - 44 of the first 60 runs came in boundaries. In doing that, though, both McCullum and Guptill lost their wickets. And when debutant Aaron Redmond fell in the 17th over, with the score 71 and the ball starting to turn big, Saeed Ajmal and Shahid Afridi seemed to be all over the batsmen.
The umpires, Ian Gould and Taufel, were put through a stern test too, with lots of lbw appeals from the spinners and the fast bowlers using the bouncer well, often bordering on being wide. Like the New Zealand batsmen, they handled a charged Pakistan side well.
From 71 for 3, when Ross Taylor and Elliott looked to blunt the spinners, Younis turned to Rana Naved-ul-Hasan, who started getting the ball to reverse dangerously. Taylor followed the Virender Sehwag route, and hit Afridi out of the ground, disposing of the reversing ball. The new ball, though, immediately accounted for Taylor, who played for the non-existent turn and was bowled.
At 126 for 4 in 29.5 overs, New Zealand sprung a surprise. Vettori, who had taken 3 for 43 earlier, leapfrogged Neil Broom and James Franklin in the batting order. He guided the chase along with an equally cool Elliott, who had passed a last-minute fitness Test for a hand injury sustained in the previous game. Elliott hardly played a forceful shot until the batting Powerplay was taken. He just kept nurdling and bunting around for singles and twos until it became absolutely necessary to attack. His first boundary came off the 68th ball he faced, to move on to 38.
Then came the dropped chance, and then the Powerplay. Vettori opened up first during the restrictions, lofting Ajmal, Aamer and Rana for boundaries. Two no-balls by Rana in the 45th over almost put it across Pakistan, and 16 runs from the next over, by Umar Gul, sealed the matter.
If planning was the key in New Zealand's innings, it was conspicuous by its absence in Pakistan's. Their openers were duly tested by New Zealand bowlers, who found the perfect balance between the defensive and the offensive after having lost the toss on a flat pitch surrounded by an outfield as fast as a highway.
Imran Nazir and Kamran Akmal made uncharacteristically solid starts but, at 43 for 0 after nine overs, Shane Bond produced a special over. Two accurate bouncers, one a no-ball, and the other, a jaffa, rising from just short of a length and jagging into Nazir and taking the edge, reminded the cricketing world what it had been missing.
Ian Butler, who had been taken for three boundaries in his first over, removed Shoaib Malik and Kamran Akmal in back-to-back overs, both to ordinary shots. But during an 80-run stand for the fifth wicket, Mohammad Yousuf and Umar didn't try to unsettle the lesser New Zealand bowlers. It seemed as though they had forgotten the batting Powerplay, and played as if the good old 15-over restriction rule was in place.
Yousuf fell when the time to accelerate came, having scored 45 off 78. James Franklin and Grant Elliot went for 40 in their 10 overs, and gave Butler, Bond and Vettori enough scope to attack. Butler ended with career-best figures of 4 for 44.
When Yousuf fell in the 39th over, with the score on 166, one would have expected Shahid Afridi to call for the Powerplay. He didn't. But he kept playing risky cricket with the field out, and paid for it. In between those two dismissals, Taufel ruled Umar lbw off Vettori but replays showed the batsman had hit the ball. The Pakistan bowlers were left to give themselves runs to defend, and Aamer and Ajmal did that in uninhibited manner. They managed 233, with a 35-run last-wicket stand, but their batsmen had left them with too much to do.
Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo