Clarke and Bollinger seal series
Stand-in Australian captain Michael Clarke produced a superb century to seal the five-match series with a game to spare after an eight-wicket win in Abu Dhabi. An unbeaten hundred, his fourth in one-day cricket and first as captain, was arguably his finest and was the key to Australia's comfortable pursuit of Pakistan's 197.
Clarke and Shane Watson combined for a record-breaking 197-run partnership to lift Australia from its knees after Shoaib Akhtar wound back the clock with two early wickets in a blistering opening spell. Shoaib, on return after being left out of game three, claimed Brad Haddin and debutant Marcus North to leave Australia reeling at 3 for 2. But Clarke and Watson negotiated the rest of Shoaib's sharp four-over opening spell before flourishing under the floodlights.
The captain's innings was easily the best and most fluent of the series and featured sublime footwork and timing against both pace and spin. The ease with which he found the boundary was breath-taking as he produced nearly every shot in the book, punctuated by a crushing cover drive to bring up three figures.
Watson's innings was at times the total antithesis of his captain's but certainly no less valuable. For long periods he fought the Pakistan attack, the Sheik Zayed Stadium surface and even his own mind. Saeed Ajmal, whose ten overs cost just 20, mesmerised him but could not claim his wicket. Watson provided resolute support for his captain while exorcising his own demons with his best performance since returning from injury.
The chase was never really threatened after the initial Shoaib burst. The spinners proved a handful but could not break Watson's resolve and never looked like breaking Clarke's.
Doug Bollinger produced an exceptional bowling performance in just his second one-day international to help bowl out Pakistan for 197. Returning in place of Ben Hilfenhaus, Bollinger claimed his first wicket with the third ball of the day and came back in the 35th over to claim four more victims.
He finished with a fine 5 for 35 from 7.4 overs on another very slow pitch. It was the Australians who were expected to wilt in the oppressive conditions but they produced a disciplined effort to stifle Pakistan.
Shahid Afridi led a late rescue mission with a run-a-ball 40 to guide Pakistan to their total after they lost regular wickets in the blazing heat. They stumbled early after winning the toss, slumping to 12 for 2, and it could have been 12 for 3 after Misbah-ul-Haq survived a huge appeal for caught behind first ball off Nathan Bracken. Bracken was unfortunate to claim just 2 for 31 from his 10 overs.
Misbah (34) and the 17-year-old Ahmed Shehzad (43) set about rebuilding the innings during a steady stand. They wrestled with the impeccable lengths of the four Australian fast bowlers who were very effective with their changes of pace. Bracken and Stuart Clark were particularly difficult to get away on a wicket which became lower and slower as the innings wore on.
The two Pakistani batsmen were far more comfortable against the finger spinners. Nathan Hauritz and Clarke orchestrated Pakistan's collapse on Monday, but there had been a clear rethink in strategy by the batsmen. Hauritz was tidy in claiming 1 for 34 but the other three finger spinners all conceded more than five runs per over.
The big shots were shelved, barring a poorly executed slog sweep from Shehzad, as the batsmen worked the spinners into the gaps and ran neatly between the wickets. Afridi and Shoaib Malik accelerated during the middle period and a total of 240 looked a distinct possibility, but the reintroduction of Bollinger and Clark changed things dramatically.
Afridi's innings defied expectation. His strike-rate was typically brisk, he farmed the strike well to protect the lower order, was inventive but calculated with his stroke-play and placement, while his running was atypically intelligent.
But his departure in the batting Powerplay signalled the beginning of the end for Pakistan as Bollinger and Bracken cleaned up by cleverly mixing their lengths and pace. Australia have sealed the series 3-1 with a match to play and might have the opportunity to use Brett Lee in the dead rubber.
Alex Malcolm is a freelance writer from Western Australia