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The Bulletin by Anand Vasu
April 14, 2007
Five-wicket wins are usually strolls in the park. New Zealand's win, against South Africa, by that very margin, with 10 balls to spare, was a huffing-puffing, perspiration inducing, and tendon-testing crawl on an inclined treadmill. But it was well worth it, for it earned them a spot in the semi-finals. Each run of the chase was hard-fought, every boundary earned, and 196 for 5 on the day, in the conditions was the equivalent of 300 on another day. But then again, the chase was merely the fruit of patient labour in the field on the first half, and boy was it sweet for Stephen Fleming's men.
When he called correctly at the toss - and chose to field, prudently, having just suffered at the hands of Sri Lanka after opting to do the opposite three days ago - Fleming set New Zealand on the way. On a pitch that had damp, dark patches that suggested much and did more, Shane Bond and James Franklin made existence a desperate task for South Africa's openers.
Graeme Smith drove at one that stopped a bit and only managed to loft a catch to cover. AB de Villiers put himself on the leader-board for ducks in this tournament, collecting his fourth as he was trapped in front by Franklin and South Africa were 3 for 2. For only the first time in 38 World Cup matches they have played, the South Africans had lost two wickets with the total still in single digits.
The stage was set for Jacques Kallis to do his thing. The conditions called for hard graft and soft hands, and with Herschelle Gibbs he set to work. Early on the pair, both confident and as yet exposed much to the conditions, helped themselves to a six each off Jacob Oram, Kallis lofting over extra-cover and Gibbs slapping over long-on. But from there on, with the ball passing outside edge almost as often as it hit the middle of the bat, the two realised that this was no time to be taking chances.
With the ball gripping the surface every now and then the spinners would have a role to play, and Daniel Vettori was simply releasing the ball in the right areas, letting the pitch do its job. One such floater tempted Kallis - whose 22 had helped add 50 for the third wicket - into a false stroke over the off side, and the ball went high rather than far, and Bond settled under the catch.
Fleming's often called the best captain in world cricket, and on the day he pulled one inspirational rabbit out of the hat, tossing the ball to Craig McMillan to bowl his seam up. Although he rarely produces unplayable deliveries McMillan regularly sends down clever ones. He managed three on the day that cost South Africa dear.
Gibbs's ability to pick the line and length of the ball early and yet play late brings him plenty of success when he goes after the bowling, but it was the very same skills that helped him compile the highest score of the South African innings. He made 60, and it was hard work, just 2 fours and a six, in his 100-ball essay, but then it was just what the situation called for. Again it was McMillan who did the job, as Gibbs dragged a cutter back onto his stumps. McMillan added a second scalp when Ashwell Prince, another batsman whose contribution could be critical in the conditions, managed 27 before he got under one delivery a bit too much and holed out to long-off. While some preferred the graft Mark Boucher attempted to hit himself out of a hole and it didn't come off - a big hit went straight to long-off.
From there on, it was only the desperate attempts of the lower order to eke out what runs they could that pushed the South Africans to 193 for 7 from 50 overs. Although the conditions did not change dramatically in the second half, and South Africa's bowlers were every bit as hungry to do a job as their batsmen, New Zealand had the advantage of knowing exactly what they needed to do to win.
And there was no shortage of application. Fleming led from the front, not merely playing at as little as possible, leaving anything approaching dangerous well alone, but scoring without taking risks. He was unfazed by the loss of Peter Fulton, who edged Makhaya Ntini straight to Andrew Hall at second slip, and Ross Taylor, who was a bit unlucky to go, having been adjudged lbw after he was hit high on the pad by Andre Nel. But when two wickets fell, New Zealand had 42 on the board - South Africa had been 3 for 2.
Fleming then stitched together 50 critical runs, batting alongside Scott Styris, fresh from a century against Sri Lanka, before he attempted a cut to a ball that was too close to the stumps for the shot and feathered an edge to the keeper. McMillan then took up the job at hand with Styris for company, and that pairing lasted 56, before a rush of blood put a small dent in New Zealand's press towards victory. Styris, trying to finish the game in a flurry of strokes hit Robin Peterson up in the air for Gibbs to catch running back from mid-off. By then New Zealand had reached 176, and the remaining runs were almost knocked off without further damage, till Oram had a brain seizure and tried to cream a full delivery from Nel over midwicket with just 2 runs to win and was bowled. New Zealand had won, and booked a spot in the semi-finals, but it was not without a lot of hard work.