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Australia win battle of bowlers

Last updated on: February 21, 2011 21:58 IST

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In recent years, rarely has one-day cricket witnessed a battle contested evenly between ball and ball.

Teams are packed with seven-to-eight batsmen and the crux is on putting the match beyond the reach of the opposition batting line-up.

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But on Monday, in Motera, Ahmedabad, Zimbabwe and Australia wrote a different script.

The contest was not which set of batsmen could outscore the other. IT was about which set of bowlers could trouble the opposition batsmen more. It was also a battle of contrasting bowling attacks. In the red corner were Zimbabwe's slow trundlers, and in the yellow corner were Australia's white-hot pace attack.

First to display their wares was Zimbabwe.

Ray Price with Tatenda Taibu after dismissing David HusseyNo sooner was Chris Mpofu done loosening his limbs in the first over, than left-arm spinner Raymond Price came in. Everyone, including the Australians, knew this would happen. But knowing something would happen is very different from actually facing it.

Brad Haddin and Shane Watson tied themselves up in knots, unable to get Price's wicket-to-wicket spinners away.

By the 10th over, Utseya replaced Mpofu, and from then on it was mostly spin from both ends all the way.

Price was the star among Zimbabwe's spinners. He opened the bowling and rushed through the first 15 overs before the Australian openers knew what was happening. They could only muster 53 in the first 15 overs.

Bowling powerplay done, Chigumbara was emboldened to bring Mpofu on. This turned out to be a costly move as first Watson, and then Haddin launched into him carving two successive fours each.

Just as these two were all set to unshackle themselves, Prosper Utseya struck. In the 19th over, he rapped Haddin on the pads and along with 'keper Tatenda Taibu, went up in appeal. The on-field umpire turned it down, and on Taibu's urging, Zimbabwe referred it to the third umpire. The replays showed Haddin was out.

New-man Ricky Ponting then farmed most of the strike to his in-form opener. Watson quickly shifted gears and upped the tempo. But when he was on 79, leggie Graeme Cremer pitched one in line with the leg stump and spun it in. Watson, midway through a wild slog sweep, was hit on the pads. Again the appeal was turned down. Again Taibu took the initiative to ask his skipper to go upstairs, where the appeal was upheld.

This wicket showed Australia's problems in the first two-thirds of their innings. They took a long time to get on top of the slow bowlers, and just when they looked like they had their numbers, a wicket fell, setting them back.

The third wicket was also similar in terms of momentum.

Ponting had gotten into his stride and new-man Michael Clarke kept himself busy, collecting the singles and twos. On one such occasion, he called his captain back for quick second and Mpofu fired a flat throw in from the deep. Had it been necessary for the bowler to collect it and remove the bails, Ponting would have been home. But the throw clipped the bails and the Aussie skipper well short of his ground.

Thus, Zimbabwe somehow got through their middle overs without much damage, though their bowling was not always top quality.

The Ponting setback also meant that Australia could not take their batting powerplay early. Cameron White had to settle down. They eventually took the powerplay after the 40th over. But Chigumbara was up for the challenge. He reverted to his best bowlers – Price and and Utseya. The two had -- especially Price -- bowled exceptionally well in the first powerplay periods and they did an encore in the batting powerplay. In their two overs each, along with Mpofu's one over, the Zimbabweans gave away only 35 runs during the powerplay. They also had the bonus wicket of White, who was bowled off the last ball of the powerplay.

Going into the last five overs, Australia was 204/7. Hardly champions bowlers. But Clarke and Steve Smith managed to get 58 runs off the last five overs to take the Aussies to 262/6.

What finally did Zimbabwe in was their inability to take regular wickets. They did keep up the pressure for long spells, but the batsmen eventually broke out of jail. Nonetheless, it was an impressive performance by Zimbabwe. And Price was the star of the first innings.

He gave away 43 runs in his 10 overs, 13 of which came in his last over, the 49th of the innings, when Australia was making a mad dash for the finish line.

The amazing aspect of his bowling figures was that the other nine were bowled when the field restrictions on -- seven of them in the first 15 overs, and two in the batting powerplay. 

He opened the bowling against the might of Haddin and Watson, kept the two strokemakers tied down for a majority of the first 15 overs when field restrictions were on, and then came back when the field restrictions were back on in the batting powerplay. He gave away only 30 in those two spells combined. The Aussies did not have a clue how to play him. 

Mpofu and Utseya were also brilliant, complementing Price.

Even as they headed into the break, Zimbabwe must have thought they had conceded 20-30 runs too many (14 extras).

Shane WatsonChasing 262 against any other team, they would have backed themselves. But against this Aussie attack of Tait, Johnson, Lee, the likes of whom they probably never faced, was always going to be a tough ask.

Ponting began with Tait and Lee and quickly introduced Mitchell Johnson into the attack. After that it was roulette of three quicks gunning for a fragile batting line up. It was just a matter of who gets whom.

At the end of 13 overs, Zimbabwe were 44/4, all its batsmen victims of red hot pace.

Lee got Coventry pulling a bouncer that was too quick for his reflexes and had climbed up on him by the time he was into the shot. The ball launched into orbit like a rocket, and as it came down, Lee was on had to pouch it.

Tait fired one from wide of the crease, pitching on middle aimed at Brendon Taylor's leg stump. The ball hit the pad and changed course to crash into the middle stump.

Johnson had Taibu fending at a delivery on off stump that had him cramped for room and Watson took the catch in slips.

In his next over, Johnson got one to lift off a good length, and Craig Ervine who was shaping up for a drive was hit in the face.

Johnson sent the next one full and Ervine, probably reeling from the blow was caught on his crease.

This fiery opening spell from the pace trio effectively ended the match.

Zimbabwe nudged, pushed and prodded as they kept losing wickets regularly. Utseya and Cremer, who excelled with the ball, put on 49 for the eighth wicket.

Though they were merely delaying the inevitable, Utseya and Cremer showed that this Zimbabwe team is not going to roll over and die, whatever its other inadequacies are. Going by the evidence on display today, they might well turn out to be the banana peel side of the tournament.

Mitchell Johnson was the deadliest -- and the most miserly – as he finished with 4/19. 
But Zimbabwe's bowlers can definitely take heart from their performance. Teams that face Zimbabwe in the matches to come would do well to sit and chalk a plan for Price and Utseya.

As for Australia, this was perfect start to the tournament. Despite the comparatively modest total, their top order got a good look in at spin.

Today's experience will come handy in the latter stages, especially when they take on the fellow biggies in their group. Sri Lanka and Pakistan, both of which are laden with spinners, and who are of infinitely better quality than this Zimbabwe attack.

Above all, this match was a great advertisement for one-day cricket, as was evident from the 9500-strong crowd. And this on a Monday, for a match that did not feature India.

Photograph: Getty Images

Krishnakumar Padmanabhan Ahmedabad