Host lacks firepower

BULAWAYO received much-needed rain to end a long period of drought, but the Zimbabwe cricket side could not notch up a much-needed victory over the formidable Australians.

BULAWAYO received much-needed rain to end a long period of drought, but the Zimbabwe cricket side could not notch up a much-needed victory over the formidable Australians.

Jason Gillespie, who bagged two early wickets, is being congratulated by Brad Hogg and Brett Lee. — Pic. AFP-

But then, these are days when cricket itself has taken a back seat in this African nation, which is passing through a troubled phase. Andy Flower's protest is symbolic of the worrying times in Zimbabwe.

No, Andy did not wear the black arm-band this time, however, he indicated later that his fight against the throttling of democracy, along with Henry Olonga, would continue. This was a clear sign that the focus in the Zimbabwe camp was not on cricket alone.

The Australians had arrived in Zimbabwe amidst heavy security, putting to rest doubts that they might be tempted to forfeit the game, and, proceeded to record their 10th successive ODI win, confirming their status as favourites for the title.

Two of the umpires for the game, England's Peter Willey and Neil Mallender refused to travel to Zimbabwe though, and their places were taken up by New Zealand's Brent Bowden, and Brian Jerling of South Africa. Yet another indication of cricket taking a back-seat.

Given the odds, it was indeed creditable that the Zimbabweans managed to stretch the Australians up to a point, Andy himself playing a part, top-scoring with a well compiled 62.

The hosts, speeded up the run-rate towards the end, thanks to Man of the Match Andy Blignaut's powerful 28-ball 54, to put up a respectable 246 on the board and then had the Aussies in a spot of bother at 156 for three, when skipper Ricky Pointing was caught and bowled by leg-spinner Brian Murphy for 38.

However, like it happens so often these days, the Aussies invariably find the right men for the occasion during the pressure situations and this time, Damien Martyn (50 not out, 70 balls, two fours) and the left-handed Darren Lehmann (56 not out, 48 balls, six fours) came good.

The two denied the Zimbabweans the breakthrough, while picking the runs at a good clip, and the defending champion was home and dry in the 48th over, winning this group `A' duel by seven wickets. The Aussies now had full 16 points from four games, and Zimbabwe, eight in four.

The Australian chase was given a flying start, with the explosive Adam Gilchrist smashing the bowling around for a 65-ball 61 (eight fours), Matthew Hayden, produced some sparkling strokes as well, and the champion outfit was stamping out its authority.

The score had raced to 89, when first change paceman Douglas Hondo prised out Hayden for a 39-ball 34, and Gilchrist after completing his 26th ODI half-century, holed out in the deep to offie Douglas Marillier, the pick of the Zimbabwe bowlers.

And when Ponting was dismissed, the Zimbabweans may have seen a glimmer of hope. However, Martyn and Lehmann, with a display that was, both, professional and enterprising, ended the home team's aspirations. It was clear that the Zimbabwe attack lacked the firepower and the variety to deny the Aussies.

However, all credit to the Zimbabwe batsmen for putting up a spirited display against the awesome pace attack of Glenn McGrath, Jason Gillespie and Brett Lee after Heath Streak called right.

Gillespie did strike early, sending back Craig Wishart and Guy Whittall, promoted in the order, however, Andy Flower proceeded to play an innings of character.

He has come in for criticism from several quarters following an indifferent display against India, where he appeared in no mood to stay and fight in the middle. But motivation and the commitment, the cornerstones of Andy's batting, were on display at the Queens Sports Club ground.

Andy and brother Grant added 84 for the third wicket, with some positive batting before the latter walked back following a misunderstanding over a run. The senior sibling, striking the ball well, reached his 57th ODI half century, but the left-arm Chinaman bowling of Brad Hogg accounted for Andy, who was castled.

The spinner then struck twice in two balls, dismissing Dion Ebrahim and Marillier to leave Zimbabwe tottering at 142 for six.

The departure of Shane Warne from the World Cup stage, has provided a wonderful opportunity for the under-rated Hogg to cement his place, and he is now making the chance count.

Zimbabwe may have been in deep trouble, but this only brought the best out of Andy Blignaut, a combative but temperamental cricketer. The all-rounder took the bull by its horns, smashing the Aussie bowling to the distant corners of the ground, striking two huge sixes and eight scintillating boundaries before, Lee, who too came under Blignaut's heavy artillery fire, hung on to a fierce drive.

It was a stunning onslaught by Blignaut, and skipper Heath Streak, a no mean striker of the ball himself, took the cue, hammering a 19-ball 28 to take the Zimbabwean total close to 250. Meanwhile, the little Tatendra Taibu had kept one end firm (23 off 44), preventing a collapse.

The remarkably consistent McGrath conceded just 24 from nine overs, but the other frontline Aussie bowlers went for runs, something that must have given hope to the other sides as well, that this attack can be taken on in the end overs, if the methods are attacking.

In the end, all those runs in the latter half of the Zimbabwean innings did not matter though. The depth in the Aussie ranks, the feature of its cricket, came to the fore yet again.

The scores:

Zimbabwe: C. Wishart b Gillespie 10; G. Whittall c Hogg b Gillespie 1; A. Flower b Hogg 62; G. Flower (run out) 37; D. Ebrahim b Hogg 15; T. Taibu b McGrath 23; D. Marillier c Ponting b Hogg 0; A. Blignaut c & b Lee 54; H. Streak (not out) 28; B. Murphy b McGrath 1; D. Hondo (not out) 1; Extras (b-4, lb-3, w-3, nb-4) 14; Total (for nine wickets in 50 overs) 246.

Fall of wickets: 1-13, 2-28, 3-112, 4-121, 5-142, 6-142, 7-208, 8-242, 9-244.

Australia bowling: McGrath 9-2-24-2, Gillespie 9-1-50-2, Symonds 10-1-35-0, Lee 10-0-63-1, Hogg 8-0-46-3, Martyn 4-0-21-0.

Australia: A. Gilchrist c sub b Marillier 61; M. Hayden c G. Flower b Hondo 34; R. Ponting c & b Murphy 38; D. Martyn (not out) 50; D. Lehmann (not out) 56; Extras (lb-1, w-8) 9; Total (for three wickets in 47.3 overs) 248.

Fall of wickets: 1-89, 2-113, 3-156.

Zimbabwe bowling: Streak 6-0-39-0, Blignaut 10-0-53-0, Hondo 9-0-49-1, Whittall 3.3-0-26-0, Marillier 10-1-32-1, Murphy 9-0-48-1.