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Tourists prepare for unique head-to-head battle

Talk in Australian cricket remains fixed on bonus points and head-to-head rules for the moment

John Polack
Talk in Australian cricket remains fixed on bonus points and head-to-head rules for the moment. That being as it is, though, the minds of South Africa and New Zealand's cricketers are firmly fixed on a head-to-head battle of a different kind - and the bonus of a unique prize that might emerge from it.
Neither country has ever yet won a one-day international title on Australian soil. So the best-of-three finals duel which they are about to contest in order to decide the winner of this season's VB Series is one that promises plenty in the way of opportunity.
Having dispensed - albeit controversially - with pre-tournament favourite Australia, now comes their chance to make this competition their own.
After winning three of the teams' four contests in the series, and an astonishing 15 of their last 16 meetings overall, it's South Africa which enters the deciders as the clear favourite.
Which is probably not a huge statement in itself, given that talent spreads itself in thick measure right across the Proteas' line-up.
All-rounders Shaun Pollock and Jacques Kallis, batsmen Gary Kirsten and Jonty Rhodes, wicketkeeper Mark Boucher, and bowlers Allan Donald, Nicky Boje and Makhaya Ntini have all been in excellent form in the series. Importantly, there have been few passengers within their ranks and the team has played with a sense of confidence that had been missing in its Test series against Australia earlier in the summer.
That said, though, any attempt to take the Black Caps lightly will almost certainly end in disaster. Well coached, well drilled, and often artfully captained, the New Zealanders have made a habit of confounding expectation during their dual tours of Australia this summer.
They've surprised some, and even annoyed others, at different times - not least with their much-discussed decision to deliberately surrender a bonus point in their closing preliminary match.
And they'll certainly be out to upset conventional wisdom again.
New Zealand's major focus will be on curtailing the Proteas' ability - on show consistently in this series - to plunder runs at will in the closing overs of innings against them. That the series' leading wicket-taker, Shane Bond, is back in the ranks after a brief injury scare will be a major boost to such hopes.
Also important will be an ability to mount successful partnerships at the top of the batting order. The Black Caps have been struggling for some time to pair together a long-lasting opening duo at one-day international level, and there would probably be no better time than now to unearth it.
Against a South African attack that has consistently caused it problems in the recent past, sound starts to the New Zealanders' innings may represent the entire difference between winning and losing these finals.
For as brilliantly as the likes of Chris Cairns and Chris Harris have performed in extricating their team from early batting surrenders in the series, greater productivity from the upper order will surely be a major plank of New Zealand's pre-finals planning.
It's impossible to gauge how the crowds will react to this match-up nor which team will win the majority of the patrons' loyalties. It represents only the third one-day international finals series here in the space of 22 years that has failed to featured Australia and, for the most recent precedent, we have to go all the way back to 1996-97.
At their pre-match press conferences yesterday, both captains acknowledged that the ways in which the spectators engage with the series rest in the lap of the gods.
And, with rain having tumbled for three of the last five days in Sydney (the venue scheduled to play host to the remaining match, or matches, in the series), it's just possible that those upstairs may settle another issue too.
Because there's a real chance - with no reserved days allocated for any of the three games - that they will fondly reward the team which impresses most in the series-opener at the MCG this afternoon.