Australia v Zimbabwe, Group B, ICC World Twenty20 September 12, 2007

No more fun for 'diabolical' Australia

No-one expected a challenge to Australia's hegemony, least of all from Zimbabwe. But on a crazy night at Newlands, all that changed

Elton Chigumbura celebrates the dismissal of Matthew Hayden in the first over ... Australia were off the pace from the start © Getty Images
Ray Mali, the interim ICC president, evoked gasps from around the globe a few weeks ago when he claimed that Zimbabwe can be the world's No. 1 in three years. It isn't the first time Mali has appeared to be living in his own surreal world, but for one night in Cape Town reality was suspended as Australia, the world champions and tournament favourites, were toppled in a thrilling, unforgettable, upset.

Brendan Taylor paced his innings outstandingly despite a rain interruption, and when he glanced Nathan Bracken off his pads down to fine leg with one ball to spare, the whole Zimbabwe squad - who had been stood as one in the dug-out - erupted in wild celebrations. In recent times they haven't been able to beat national A teams, but now they had taken down the biggest name in the game.

The crowd hadn't quite lived up to the pre-match expectations, but the grass bank by the pavilion included a small patch of Zimbabwe fans and they burst into spontaneous scenes of joy. During the closing stages, however, most of the spectators threw their support behind Zimbabwe, and were rewarded with a lap of honour as Australia licked their wounds. Australia now face the unpalatable prospect of going out at the first hurdle, while Zimbabwe must try to resist their urge to party all night because England await on Thursday afternoon.

But there is a feeling that Australia had this coming. Their attitude towards Twenty20 has verged on the indifferent from the format's very inception, and at the end Ricky Ponting tellingly said "we've got to start respecting the game a bit more." He admitted he was embarrassed by the result adding that there "would be many Australians back home feeling the same way."

Ponting has tried to laugh off Australia's previous Twenty20 defeats, especially their memorable 100-run upset against England before the 2005 Ashes, but he wore a stony face after this result. This time Australia have come a cropper in a global tournament - that doesn't happen very often at all.

Reducing the number of overs and throwing in some awkward weather conditions invariably brings a contest closer together. Leading players have less time to express themselves and create match-winning displays, while it allows those normally exposed by the longer form to have a greater role.

This match was never expected to equal the pyrotechnics generated by West Indies and South Africa at the Wanderers, but after Ponting decided to bat - when bowling first would have put Zimbabwe under greater early pressure - the feeling was that their muscle and might would overcome the trickiness of the conditions.

There is a feeling that Australia had this coming. Their attitude towards Twenty20 has verged on the indifferent from the format's very inception, and at the end Ricky Ponting tellingly said 'we've got to start respecting the game a bit more.'

But one of the beauties of cricket is how the game can change with the conditions. This tournament is being played in three contrasting venues all around South Africa; the high altitude of Johannesburg, the humidity of Durban and the cool of Cape Town. While watching Chris Gayle and Herschelle Gibbs cut loose was hugely entertaining, so was seeing the best team in the world battling against a side that, in recent times, has resembled a poor club side.

Zimbabwe's motley crew of medium-pacers were made to look lethal as the clouds came over and the ball zipped around, but in Johannesburg they would have been cannon-fodder. Australia's instinct was to try and attack their way out of a sticky situation, and not just because this is Twenty20 - they would have played the same way in a Test or one-day international.

However, each time they attempted an expansive shot it went straight up in the air and located a safe pair of Zimbabwean hands. To put Australia's struggle into context they ended the six overs of fielding restrictions on 22 for 3; when Kenya were 1 for 4 against New Zealand earlier in the day they made 23 from the first six. "The top order was diabolical during the warm-ups too," said Ponting. "And I guess that's where we lost it."

Still, though, the feeling was that Australia's 139 would be enough. But early boundaries from Vusi Sibanda gave Zimbabwe some momentum, then rain started adding to the equation. Slowly it became heavier and, as Ponting nervously tried to read a crumpled Duckworth-Lewis print-out, the players were forced off the pitch. Australia were ahead by five runs, but the break gave Zimbabwe time to reassess and when play resumed Taylor played the innings of his life.

Ponting tried sending fielders left, right and centre and endless shies missed the stumps as Zimbabwe's batsmen scampered for everything. It brought back memories of the last time Australia suffered a huge one-day upset, against Bangladesh at Cardiff in 2005, the first result of a tour which culminated in them losing the Ashes - ironically two years ago to the very day.

Their one chance of staying alive in this tournament now rests on beating England on Friday. If that doesn't motivate them, nothing will. All of a sudden this tournament has got very serious for Australia.

Andrew McGlashan is a staff writer on Cricinfo