A captain's knock indeed

Fleming single-handedly caused the turnaround in the fortunes of his side. As captain he took the initiative and did not leave the scene till he had completed a task in a high-scoring match that was shortened by 11 overs because of rain.

G. VISWANATH

Nathan Astle signals a remarkable victory for the Kiwis with Stephen Fleming (in the background) being the batsman who made it possible.-— Pics. V. V. KRISHNAN

THE New Zealand-South Africa match that took place at The Wanderers in Johannesburg on the second Sunday of the ICC World Cup terminated in trouble for Shaun Pollock's team. South Africa began the Cup campaign as hot favourites. But the West Indies dented their reputation on the first Sunday (February 9) at Newlands and on the second Sunday (February 16) the Black Caps questioned their credentials.

First, it was Lara (dropped on 0 by Jacques Kallis off Makahya Ntini) who played a gem of a knock. On the second occasion it was Stephen Fleming (dropped on 53 by wicketkeeper Mark Boucher off Kallis) who perhaps played the second best century-knock in a World Cup competition (Steve Waugh will have to be given the first rank for his 120 against South Africa at Leeds in the last World Cup).

Fleming single-handedly caused the turnaround in the fortunes of his side. As captain he took the initiative and did not leave the scene till he had completed a task in a high-scoring match that was shortened by 11 overs because of rain. Fleming played thundering shots off all the bowlers. Victory was never in doubt for the Kiwis, what with Craig McMillan and Nathan Astle playing the supporting cast to perfection.

Newlands and The Wanderers are venues where South Africa boasts of excellent records. It has lost only a handful of matches at both the grounds. In this World Cup match, the batsmen enjoyed success over the bowlers. But no one expected the home team to be crushed, not after Herschelle Gibbs' 12th one-day century had taken the home team's score beyond the 300 mark. But Fleming played the innings of his life to leave the South Africans heartbroken.

There was a change in South Africa's opening pair. The highly talented Graeme Smith took the injured Jonty Rhodes' place in the side and opened in the company of Gibbs. He seemed a little impatient, though he showed the readiness to attack Shane Bond and Andre Adams, while Gibbs watched the fun from the non-striker's end.

Gibbs has been in World Cup news since he dropped a dolly off Steve Waugh at Leeds in 1999. The stigma has stuck on him and people never miss an opportunity to take a dig at him. Gibbs has replied to his carping critics by scoring runs and on this day he won many admirers by making a near flawless 143 off 141 balls with 19 fours and three sixes. The attacking batsman from Western Province (Gary Kirsten and Graeme Smith also come from the same place) built partnerships with Smith (60 runs for the first wicket), Nicky Boje (66 for the second), Jacques Kallis (67 for the third) and Mark Boucher (50 for the fourth). The going was smooth for South Africa with Gibbs in full control of the situation. It was because of his ability to break free that South Africa could sustain the six plus run rate.

Gibbs had been in form in the previous match against Kenya, too, striking an imperious, unbeaten 87 as South Africa raced to a meagre target of 140 without losing a wicket. He continued in the same vein at the Wanderers and the packed house relished one of the brightest knocks at the ground. The ground staff usually prepare a batting wicket here. Two seasons ago Sourav Ganguly, Sachin Tendulkar and Gary Kirsten enjoyed themselves with the South Africans successfully chasing 280 runs in a day/night encounter.

The `Kenya factor' has made every other match a vital one for the Kiwis. The win at Port Elizabeth against the West Indies came as a big relief and Fleming took it upon himself to challenge the South Africans. Fleming had not scored a century in one-day internationals for more than five years and in as many as 111 matches. So, initially he would not have backed himself to play the sort of outstanding innings that he did, although New Zealand had emerged victors, on the previous occasions he had made centuries — against West Indies and Australia.

Fleming knew he had done it before. He also knew that the pitch had not deteriorated enough to make stroke-making difficult. Initially, he took his chances with the double purpose of keeping the run-rate as high as possible and to make things safe in the event of rain interrupting the match.

The South Africans began to wilt as Fleming began to get his timing and placement right. He used the width to whip the ball off his pads and force shots on the off side. He did not risk playing too many shots off Pollock and Ntini, who, in the circumstances, were economical at 4.50 and 4.13. But he extracted the most from Allan Donald who was hammered for 52 off 35 balls.

Fleming did not allow the momentum of the 89-run start in 85 balls to falter. Astle rotated the strike in order to let Fleming wade into the South African bowlers. It was a psychological ploy that worked with the Kiwi skipper sending a clear message to the South African bowlers that he was out on a mission and that he would go any extent to achieve it.

When rain stopped play, the Black Caps were far ahead on the Duckworth and Lewis table. When the umpires reduced the match to 39 overs, Fleming and Astle were looking at a target of 226 and needing to score 45 off 51 deliveries. A boundary off Donald's fifth ball of his sixth over announced a great victory for New Zealand.

Fleming had thrown himself into the bullring and come out unscathed. There were no half measures from him. His colleagues jumped over the balcony and rushed into the ground to greet their captain. The South Africans trooped back crestfallen. One man had beaten them. ``Stephen was awesome. That's probably the best I've seen him bat. It's one of the best wins we have had in a long time. Everyone comes to these games to see a lot of runs and that's exactly what they got. There has been a lot of pressure on us. We had to win these past two games, but we've come out and done the business and it feels great. Now we're looking forward to the Super Six stage," said Vettori.

Fleming, delighted at his own performance and the team's win, said: "The pitch was good, but anything over 300 is usually a pretty tough target. We were a little disappointed with the way we bowled and that carried through lunch but we had to be positive. We just thought `this is a last-chance knockout match, let's see what we can do'.

The day after the defeat, Gibbs, who reportedly had kicked the dressing room door, said: "It's not often that you get a big hundred and end up losing. But Stephen Fleming's century was special and you've got to give him credit for that.''

The scores:

South Africa: G. Smith c McCullum b Bond 23; H. Gibbs c McCullum b Oram 143; N. Boje b Styris 29; J. Kallis c Vincent b Vettori 33; M. Boucher c Cairns b Oram 10; L. Klusener (not out) 33; S. Pollock c Oram b Adams 10; G. Kirsten (not out) 5; Extras (lb-6, w-11, nb-3) 20; Total (for six wickets in 50 overs) 306.

Fall of wickets: 1-60, 2-126, 3-193, 4-243, 5-260, 6-287.

New Zealand bowling: Bond 10-0-73-1, Adams 9-0-57-1, Oram 8-0-52-2, Styris 10-0-44-1, Vettori 10-0-58-1, Astle 3-0-16-0.

New Zealand: C. McMillan c Boucher b Donald 25; S. Fleming (not out) 134; N. Astle (not out) 54; Extras (lb-8, w-8) 16; Total (for one wicket, 36.5 overs) 229.

Fall of wicket: 89.

South Africa bowling: Pollock 8-0-36-0, Ntini 8-1-33-0, Donald 5.5-0-52-1, Kallis 8-0-47-0, Boje 2-0-16-0, Klusener 5-0-37-0.

(New Zealand were set a revised target of 226 runs off 39 overs under Duckworth/Lewis scoring method following rain interruption).