Player of the Match
Player of the Match

Kirsten's innings leads SA to remarkable victory

Durban - Shrugging off the nightmare trauma of the last 72 hours South Africa forgot the recriminations of Hansiegate for an evening and concentrated on beating Australia at Kingsmead in the opening match of the Challenge Series.

It was a remarkable four-wickets victory against the World Cup champions: just what a packed Kingsmead, and perhaps South Africa, needed in a time of internal crisis.

With Gary Kirsten digging deep in a hallmark display of left-handed batting grit, synonymous with the Kirsten name, during a well-paced innings of 97, South Africa went on to take a 1-0 lead in the three-match series.

In some small way it avenged the two defeats during the World Cup in England last year as the side, shaken by the Hansie Cronje scandal focused their minds on the game and pulled together in a display of true character. The success coming with 12 balls to spare.

After Kirsten and Jacques Kallis had laid the foundation with a well executed partnership of 129 for the third wicket, Jonty Rhodes arrived and an audacious pull off a short delivery from Brett Lee ended the game with a four. It was an entertaining flourish and as flamboyant as any innings we have seen.

Yet Kirsten"s innings was full of purpose and merit: it was as if he wanted to win this match so much he was not prepared to surrender his wicket at any price. The pity that he edged a slower delivery from Brett Lee into his stumps.

Not surprisingly he won the man of the match of award and admitted that the way to beat the Australians was to build partnerships. His partnership with Kallis did much to give the South Africans a touch more confidence lower in the order.

Their partnership did much to contain the man they have named the Woollongong Whizz, Brett Lee, and the old adversary Shane Warne along with Damien Fleming.

If Kirsten, whose last visit to Kingsmead resulted his Test-equalling score of 275, was prepared to take South Africa"s batting cause on his shoulders, he found willing support in his partnerships with Kallis and 67 with Rhodes.

What was interesting is Kallis batting at four in the order. Perhaps South Africa have found the top five positions they want for the series with Neil McKenzie at three, a position filled by Kallis, whose strokeplay showed he was on top of his game and the six was as authoritative as any during the game.

As for Rhodes there was no mistaking his intentions from the start of his innings. His calm, assured approach and neat footwork showed that South Africa have a middle-order batsman who can take the tough pressure exerted by the visitors. They know a trick or two and so does Rhodes.

Not that scoring the 241 need was going to be easy although at 120 for seven at the start of the 27th over, Shaun Pollock, in his first serious role as captain, must have thought chasing a total of 150 was well within his side"s sights.

Only Australia"s ability to dig deep into their batting reserves with a couple of quality partnerships at least put a brave smile on the face of the visitors" first batting effort in South Africa this century. As Martyn eased his way along with an entertaining array of eloquent strokes, he did not shield his lesser partners.

There was the distinct impression that the other two Cobbers in the middle, Fleming and Lee, had to dig in and provide a few runs themselves as well as help build a partnerships to prop up the innings. Not at all easy when the top and middle has surrendered some of the initiative.

Mark Waugh might feel a touch miffed about his lbw decision which seemed to drifting down leg and Matthew Hayden, the victim of one of those superb run out efforts from an airborne throw from the covers, the victim of circumstances.

At 11 for two in the fourth over South Africa could feel well satisfied with their efforts. Gilchrist was batting with the sort of style which makes him look more of an executioner in the Klusener mould than the elegant style of Mark Waugh.

They way he punched the ball around made Kingsmead look a lot smaller than it really is. The venue may be a touch bigger than St George"s Park and Newlands, and about the same size as the Sinhalese Sports Club in Colombo but his effusive style was an indication of wrist and foot co-ordination as well as timing.

For those who enjoy such tactics it was good to watch and the way he smashed the ball for six gave the Aussie camp a sense of confidence.

What undid the middle-order, Martyn apart, was the way that Ntini, bowling as well as he did in Sharjah and certainly much better than his domestic performances, skidded the ball through. His four wickets were all well executed catches behind by Boucher.

The inter-action between these two was entertaining as it was skilfully executed, as if it was part of a well crafted script: three of the catches were under-edged shots along with the big prize, Steve Waugh"s wicket for two.

After the agony of that 120 at Headingley in Leeds in the Super Six match and the 56 in the semi-final at Edgbaston, to get rid of the gritty, determined Steve Waugh for only two was a bonus. For Ntini it was the start of a particularly rewarding spell.

Acknowledgement too for the way Pollock handled the young man who rewarded his captain also with the wickets of Michael Bevan, Andrew Symonds and Warne. Not at all a bad haul for the 23-year-old Border bowler"s first game at home for his country in two seasons.

What was interesting as the Aussie dug deep was how first Fleming and then Lee put together career best scores. Fleming managed 29 off 45 balls and Lee 24 off 29 balls. It was the partnerships with Martyn of 65 and 56 which lifted Australia"s total to 240 two runs being added when one of Gilchrist"s three sixes was changed from a four.