Smith's decision backfires

South Africa was expected to breeze through, but New Zealand medium-pacer Kyle Mills' first spell spelt its doom. G. Viswanath reports.

Stephen Fleming belongs to an illustrious club of left-handers who have offered great joy, both to the spectators and critics, with their style of batting. Very attractive to watch , the New Zealand skipper has been the backbone of his team in both Tests and limited overs cricket. The bowlers, be it the spinners or pacemen, respect him for his sheer tenacity and ability to produce spectacular strokes.

When the South African captain Graeme Smith put New Zealand in to bat after winning the toss at the Brabourne Stadium — a decision he may have regretted after losing the Champions Trophy match by 87 runs — Fleming came up with an innings that was not entirely flawless on a pitch that offered good assistance to the spinners and slow medium bowlers.

Nonetheless his knock mirrored the fibre in the man, who overcame the heat, humidity, and a spirited South African bowling to score 89 and guide New Zealand to 195.

After the West Indies went down without a fight to Sri Lanka in the final match of the preliminaries at the same venue, Brian Lara made a valid point that the surface was not all that wicked for his team to be bundled out for 80.

It was those six overs of incisive bowling by the Sri Lankan medium-pacer Chaminda Vaas that set off the West Indian collapse. However, in the New Zealand-South Africa match Fleming would have been a little more comfortable trying to defend a target of 220 plus or so one thought, but as it transpired, medium-pacer Kyle Mills' first spell spelt doom for South Africa.

Fleming had outlined a plan for his team. He had decided to take up the responsibility of playing out the 50 overs and giving the other top and middle-order batsmen the liberty to launch an attack against the South African bowlers.

Lou Vincent — New Zealand's highest scorer in one-day internationals with 172 — and the ever-aggressive Nathan Astle tried to gain an early advantage, but failed, making only 17 and 14 respectively. Veteran Shaun Pollock and Andrew Nel were economical.

Birthday boy Jacques Kallis showed his craft with the ball to claim three wickets, while the two spinners, left-armer Robin Peterson and Smith, bowling off breaks, contained the New Zealand batsmen.

Fleming remained unperturbed despite his partners being dismissed for poor scores. He stood firm like a rock though on occasions he was beaten by the extra movement off the pitch. He played some glorious shots though, all round the wicket, mostly off his front foot, before swinging Kallis to Pollock in the deep.

South Africa's chase got off on a disastrous note with Boeta Dippenaar and Herschelle Gibbs dismissed without scoring. And when Mills took an off-balance right-handed catch off his own bowling to send Kallis back to the pavilion, the writing was on the wall for South Africa.

Mark Boucher resisted for almost half an hour and Smith batted dourly for his 42 before offering a straightforward catch to Daniel Vettori at mid-on off Jacob Oram.

Mills, Oram and off-spinner Jeetan Patel picked up three wickets each, while left-arm seamer James Franklin sustained the pressure as New Zealand went on to win by 87 runs.

Later Fleming said that cricket on such a wicket would not be viewer-friendly. Smith too blamed the pitch, which he said was responsible for his team's poor show. "The decision to field first backfired on us,'' he said.

THE SCORES

Brabourne Stadium, Mumbai, October 16. New Zealand won by 87 runs.

New Zealand: L. Vincent b Pollock 17; S. P. Fleming c Pollock b Kallis 89; N. J. Astle b Hall 14; H. J. H. Marshall b Nel 1; P. G. Fulton c Boucher b Kallis 2; J. D. P. Oram c Dippenaar b Peterson 7; B. B. McCullum c & b Peterson 21; D. L. Vettori c Boucher b Smith 9; J. E. C. Franklin b Kallis 9; K. D. Mills (not out) 4; J. S. Patel (run out) 2; Extras (b 4, lb 4, w 11, nb 1) 20; Total (45.4 overs) 195.

Fall of wickets: 1-27, 2-74, 3-76, 4-86, 5-99, 6-135, 7-156, 8-180, 9-192.

South Africa bowling: Pollock 6-1-18-1; Ntini 6-0-35-0; Nel 6-2-15-1; Hall 4-0-25-1; Kallis 7-0-28-3; Peterson 8.4-0-34-2; Smith 8-0-32-1.