NZ reach semi-finals

It was a game they had to win to stay in the tournament, one the players were thinking of as effectively a quarter-final, and it was being played against Pakistan, who have won almost three-quarters of the matches played between the two teams. But today at Mohali, New Zealand became the first confirmed semi-finalist of the ICC Champions Trophy of 2006 with a 51-run win over the more-fancied Pakistan. The win not only kept their tournament hopes alive but put behind them the unpleasant memories of their mediocre performance against Sri Lanka in their previous match and also signalled the return of one of the most dangerous bowlers in ODI cricket in Shane Bond.

After struggling with the bat in the first two matches of the tournament, New Zealand at last managed to have more than one batsman reach 20. Perhaps as a celebration of Stephen Fleming’s record 194th ODI as captain, the team produced a complete performance with a substantial partnership in the top-order backed up by powerful lower-order hitting late in the innings and an exceptional bowling performance.

The match didn’t start so well for New Zealand though, losing the toss and being put in to bat when they would have preferred to have bowled first, and then losing Lou Vincent with just 3 on the board. Nathan Astle looked promising hitting his way to 15 but then he was caught at third slip off the bowling of Rana Naved. Fulton followed not long after for seven, being given out lbw to Iftikhar Rao to reduce the score at the 15 over mark to 62-3.

All the while Stephen Fleming, who top-scored with 89 against South Africa but failed to score against Sri Lanka, was playing himself in at the other end. With a few slices of luck early in his innings through top edges and hitting balls in different directions to those he intended, Fleming gradually looked more and more comfortable and started playing some typically elegant shots down the ground as he recorded yet another half-century, his 45th in ODI cricket. All he needed was a partner at the other end.

That partner was the next man in, Scott Styris. Known for his precarious starts to innings and for getting more and more comfortable the longer he bats, New Zealand supporters often have to hold their breath throughout the early stages of his innings. Doing so today would have resulted in unconsciousness as it was what felt like an age before he started to look even remotely comfortable. He played a few impressive shots but had his fair share of luck as well, including a certain run-out that was missed only because Kamran Akmal failed to hit the stumps from extremely close range. But the most important thing for New Zealand was that he stayed there and kept Fleming company, providing a vital century partnership and setting up an excellent platform from which New Zealand’s attacking middle to lower-order could boost the scoring rate.

At about the 35-over mark New Zealand started to speed up their scoring, and Stryis finally looked settled at the crease and began to play increasingly expansive shots in reaching his own half-century. But just as Styris began to get going and the match swung in New Zealand’s favour, Fleming’s lengthy innings was finally brought to an end, hitting a simple return catch to Shoaib Malik to fall for 80, an innings that Styris later described as “as well as I’ve seen him bat”. When Fleming was dismissed the fourth wicket had finally fallen some 23 overs after the third, with the score at 168. This brought Pakistan back into the contest as it exposed a New Zealand middle-order that while not lacking in talent has been struggling for form of late. But that changed today.

Jacob Oram’s big six down the ground early in his innings signalled his intentions and eased the pressure on Styris, who not only had to put up with being New Zealand’s main hope of getting a big total but also had to put aside the increasing discomfort he was getting from his back injury, which forced him to return home early from his season with Middlesex and from which has obviously not fully recovered. But the Aucklander batted through the pain, with the aid of Vincent as runner, and started targeting the boundary as the two batsmen repeatedly struck the ball with remarkable power.

With poor bowling and fielding under pressure by Pakistan, Oram belted his way into the 30s as the fifty partnership was brought up at better than a run a ball. But immediately afterwards Oram’s cameo of 31 from 26 balls came to an end with a good catch in the outfield by Umar Gul off the bowling of Abdul Razzaq.

But the fall of Oram’s wicket brought no respite for Pakistan as Brendon McCullum strode to the middle in a similar frame of mind. With his pace between the wickets and the similar speed of Vincent at the other end, a number of singles were turned into twos and the pressure showed with misfields and lapses in accuracy from the bowlers, which were powerfully punished by both Styris and McCullum. The 48th over, bowled by Rao, was hit for 18 as McCullum smashed a four and a six from the last two balls.

Styris’s brave innings eventually came to an end when Rao made up for his expensive over with an athletic catch off the bowling of Gul, Styris finally being dismissed for 86 with the team score at 254-6. McCullum continued to hit the ball to all parts of the ground, moving through to 27 from 13 before being caught on the boundary going for another six from the second to last ball of the innings.

The last ball of the innings summed up what had been happening throughout the day, particularly in the last half hour. Franklin played an elevated cut shot that went down to third man and the catch should have been taken, but the fielder had come in too far and the ball landed behind him and went for four, lifting the final score to 274-7.

As a result of not only excellent batting by New Zealand but also poor bowling and fielding, Pakistan found themselves in the difficult position of chasing easily the highest total of the tournament so far. Shane Bond went some way to putting his very disappointing comeback performance against Sri Lanka behind him when he provided the first wicket of Imran Farhat. Was that to be a sign of things to come? Farhat scored just 6 before first surviving when Fleming dropped a difficult chance at slip and then later in the same over being caught in the outfield by Kyle Mills, who followed that up with the wicket of captain Younis Khan for just two. Mills had bowled a number of excellent unsuccessful deliveries, but probably won’t complain that his wicket came from perhaps his worst ball of the spell.

Mohammad Hafeez was unfazed by the early wickets, scoring 30 of Pakistan’s first 43 runs at an impressive rate, which kept them in sight of the rising required run rate. But his innings was brought to an end when Oram came into the attack, out to a spectacular catch by wicket-keeper McCullum in Oram’s first over of the match. When the dangerous Shahid Afridi fell to the same bowler for just 4, Pakistan’s score was 83-4 and Oram, who had already had a good day with the bat, had figures of 2-11 from his first five overs.

Mohammad Yousuf was not keen to give up hope however, and he found an excellent partner in Shoaib Malik, who is well-known for his ability to time a run chase to perfection. They took a while to play themselves in, but increased their scoring rates over time and their communication improved, turning singles into twos and swinging the momentum firmly back in their favour. Yousuf showed exactly why he has been one of the world’s best batsmen in the last year, scoring an exceptional 71 from 92 balls with a number of glorious shots. The partnership reached 93 and the number of runs required dropped below 100 before the fifth wicket finally fell. Fleming threw the ball to Shane Bond for the 37th over, and was able to enjoy both the pride of his decision to bring Bond into the attack providing a wicket in his first over and the fact that he himself took the catch at cover.

After Yousuf’s wicket fell the Pakistan lineup suffered quite a collapse, the target looking further and further away as they lost four wickets for 28 runs, including the crucial wickets of internationally-feared hitter Abdul Razzaq and the settled Shoaib Malik for an excellent 52. Shane Bond took two of the four, confusing the batsmen with variations in pace and length and providing a clear warning to everyone that he’s back, finishing with figures of 3-45 from his ten. The other two were taken by Daniel Vettori and James Franklin respectively, both well-deserved as Vettori had bowled to the two half-centurions in their big partnership and kept the flow of runs to a minimum with excellent control of flight and pace on a pitch that offered absolutely no assistance to spinners and Franklin bounced back brilliantly after being targeted by Pakistan batsmen early in the innings and having his confidence severely dented as he watched balls being hit all over the ground.

The collapse saw Pakistan fall from 177-3, requiring 98 from 81 and with two very comfortable and settled batsmen at the crease probably expected to do so, to 205-8, requiring an unlikely 70 from 41 with two new batsmen. The result became a formality when Umar Gul was run out, and the win was completed when Mills took a well-deserved second wicket in removing Kamran Akmal.

New Zealand’s win means that Sri Lanka are now out of contention, and the second semi-final spot from Group B will be filled by either Pakistan or South Africa. The partnership between Scott Styris and Stephen Fleming was absolutely crucial in the victory, with both players playing fantastic innings. However, a similar partnership was produced by Pakistan in the form of Mohammad Yousuf and Shoaib Malik. The difference between the two teams came in the lower middle-order batsmen, with Jacob Oram and Brendon McCullum both producing explosive performances, and the spectacular comeback of Shane Bond. Bond struggled early on for rhythm, but was boosted by his early wicket and came back with a tremendous spell when New Zealand needed it most. For as long as he remains injury-free, Bond will be very difficult for any opposition batting lineup to handle.

New Zealand 274-7
Scott Styris 86, Stephen Fleming 80
Umar Gul 2-47, Abdul Razzaq 2-60

Pakistan 223
Mohammad Yousuf 71, Shoaib Malik 52
Shane Bond 3-45, Jacob Oram 2-25

New Zealand won by 51 runs and are through to the semi-finals.

Cricket Web Player of the Match – Scott Styris (86)

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