Australia broke their semi-final jinx at the Champions Trophy with a 34-run triumph over a spirited New Zealand at Mohali to enter their first final. In a game which turned out to be a lot closer than expected, New Zealand, seemingly down and out at 35 for 6 chasing 241, fought back with an incredible 103-run stand between Daniel Vettori and Jacob Oram. Vettori made 79, his second-highest score in ODIs, but even his effort wasn't enough to make up for the shocking collapse of their top order.
As has been the norm in this tournament, this pitch was another on which run-scoring wasn't easy. The New Zealand bowlers showed that after Stephen Fleming won the toss, as Kyle Mills - who finished with 4 for 38 - reduced Australia to 4 for 2 by the third over. Half-centuries by Ricky Ponting and Andrew Symonds - both scored 58 - lifted Australia to a competitive 240, but that seemed more than sufficient when New Zealand's top order was blown away by Glenn McGrath, Brett Lee and Nathan Bracken.
Perhaps wary of the fact that this was the same pitch on which South Africa's bowlers bundled Pakistan out for 89, New Zealand's approach at the start was to play cautiously and see off the new-ball challenge posed by Lee and McGrath. They survived five overs without losing a wicket, then lost six in a heap as their technical deficiencies were horribly exposed.
McGrath began the slide, defeating Lou Vincent outside off like he has done countless batsmen in his distinguished career. A peach of a delivery from Lee - pitching just off, and ducking in at a furious pace - was far too much for Nathan Astle to handle, while Hamish Marshall soon became McGrath's second victim. Fleming shaped well, then edged a drive, while Peter Fulton and Brendon McCullum were soon swept away as well.
The crowd at Mohali would have been preparing for a very early finish, but Vettori and Oram had other ideas. Australia had an early chance to nip the partnership, but Michael Hussey made a mess of a regulation slip catch when Vettori was on 5. Neither batsman needed a second invitation as they slowly got on top of the attack, as the pronounced seam movement gradually eased. The fast bowlers, so potent at the start, suddenly looked insipid as Oram and Vettori found the gaps at will. Oram stood tall and clipped the ball effortlessly through the on side, while Vettori preferred to move to leg and squeeze it through backward point and third man.
The runs came thick and fast, the asking rate hovered at around six an over, and Ponting was forced to turn to the spin of Symonds, who finally broke the stand, turning it enough to beat Oram and have him stumped. Vettori kept the fight going, audaciously shuffling outside off and clipping it to leg when Ponting packed the areas square on the off side. Even after he was bowled off the pads, Mills and Bond continued the fight, adding 26 for the last wicket before finally succumbing.
New Zealand fought hard with the bat, and they were similarly competitive in the field earlier in the afternoon, as all the bowlers except James Franklin gave the Australian top order plenty to ponder about. However, unlike New Zealand's shockingly brittle top order, Australia had the class to combat the conditions.
After their openers left early, the rest of the batsmen all contributed crucial knocks, with Ponting and Symonds leading the way. The key was regular partnerships - the third, fourth and fifth wickets put together 66, 54 and 65, ensuring that New Zealand never had the luxury of bowling to two new batsmen during the middle overs.
Ponting and Damien Martyn - whose innings of 26 was worth a lot more - started the recovery process. The early part of his knock was patchy, but once Ponting got into his stride the Mohali crowd was treated to some gorgeous strokeplay, with his driving down the ground being absolutely exhilarating. When Martyn was trapped on the sweep, Michael Hussey, promoted to No.5, took over, playing second fiddle perfectly to an increasingly aggressive Ponting.
Fleming marshalled his resources well, shuffling his bowlers around and delaying the third Powerplay when Ponting and Martyn were tonking it all around, but Australia's depth in batting ensured that New Zealand never seized the initiative. Ponting's dismissal, for example, brought Symonds to the middle, which meant little respite for New Zealand as he immediately got stuck into Vettori. A straight hit over long-on for six was followed by a slog-sweep for four as Vettori leaked 28 in his last four overs after conceding 13 in his first six.
Australia lost their way in the last ten overs, though - despite having six wickets in hand, they only managed 52 as New Zealand finished strongly in the field. A total of 240 promised a competitive match, and despite the washout at the start, there was enough drama to keep the Mohali crowd entertained till late at night.
Shane Watson c Fulton b Mills 0 (3 for 1)
Fetched one from outside off and top-edged a pull to mid-off
Adam Gilchrist c Oram b Mills 3 (4 for 2)
Lobbed a flick to square leg
Damien Martyn lbw b Vettori 26 (70 for 3)
Missed a sweep and trapped plumb in front
Ricky Ponting c Vettori b Mills 58 (123 for 4)
Miscued a pull to mid-on
Michael Hussey c Marshall b Franklin 35 (188 for 5)
Short ball cut straight to point
Andrew Symonds b Bond 58 (211 for 6)
Shuffled too far across; leg stump pushed back
Michael Clarke c Vettori b Mills 14 (220 for 7)
Slogged to third man
Brett Lee b Bond 5 (223 for 8)
Made room to flay and missed
Mitchell Johnson run out 3 (236 for 9)
Direct hit by the bowler at the non-striker's end
Lou Vincent c Ponting b McGrath 1 (16 for 1)
In the corridor, edged to second slip
Nathan Astle b Lee 0 (20 for 2)
Perfect indipper, crashed between bat and pad into middle stump
Hamish Marshall c Gilchrist b McGrath 5 (30 for 3)
Tried to cut, and edged to the keeper
Stephen Fleming c Ponting b Bracken 15 (30 for 4)
Full delivery swinging away, edged to second slip
Peter Fulton b McGrath 2 (34 for 5)
Shouldered arms to a straight ball on off stump
Brendon McCullum c Martyn b Bracken 1 (35 for 6)
Inside-edged a flick to mid-on
Jacob Oram st Gilchrist b Symonds 43 (138 for 7)
Beaten by the turn, and smartly stumped
Daniel Vettori b Johnson 79 (180 for 9)
Bowled off the pads as he moved away to leg
Kyle Mills c Gilchrist b Lee 21 (206 all out)
Top-edged a slash to the wicketkeeper
S Rajesh is stats editor of Cricinfo