The most exciting part of the New Zealand-Zimbabwe game -- the third in the Super Sixes -- at Bloemfontein came midway through the game. And a scoring sequence tells that story more eloquently than words can:
2, 6, 0, 6, 1, 4, 4, 2, 4, 1, 0, 2, 5, 4, 2, 1, 6, 4, 4.
That is 19 deliveries (including a wide) that produced 62 runs as Heath Streak and Sean Irvine, the latter making the side in place of Doug Marillier, launched an incredible assault on the New Zealand bowling, the bowlers to suffer being Christ Harris in the 48th over, Daniel Vettori in the 49th and Andre Adams, who went for 26 runs in the 50th over.
Till that point in time, Zimbabwe seemed done and dusted -- and through their own shortcomings -- after winning the toss and taking first strike on what the ground staff, and assembled experts, called a batting track where 240 was par.
Trouble began in the second over for Zimbabwe with Dion Ibrahim, to a nothing delivery outside his off stump, attempting a forcing shot and chopping Adams back onto his stumps.
While Adams was wayward, Shane Bond at the other end produced a spell of exquisite fast bowling -- very fast, yes, but more importantly incredibly accurate, keeping the ball on three quarter length in the corridor and bringing it sharply back off the seam to trouble the batsmen.
Zimbabwe's option was to see off Bond, and Craig Wishart and Andy Flower did that without looking too comfortable about it. When Stephen Fleming tossed the ball to Chris Cairns in the 13th over, Zimbabwe were a chance to turn things around -- Cairns, coming into this tournament after a long injury layoff, has looked completely undercooked especially as a bowler. His first over went for 9 runs as Wishart climbed into him.
Fleming kept him on -- and the move paid dividends. Wishart, perhaps intent on hitting the bowler out of the attack, chased a wide delivery outside off and touched it through to the keeper in the 15th over, a key wicket given that Wishart by then had gotten over his early fidgets and was beginning to look very good.
What followed was little short of ridiculous. In the next over, Jacob Oram produced a good bouncer, climbing steeply and angling in off the seam; Grant Flower went for the pull, found himself cramped as the ball grew big on him, failed to pull out and put it up to square leg for Cairns to hold comfortably.
In the next over, Guy Whittall looked to work Cairns to the leg side from line of off, got the faint edge, and the keeper dived to hold a low catch. The 15th, 16th and 17th overs had produced a wicket apiece, three wickets falling for just six runs in the space of 16 deliveries to peg Zimbabwe back to 65/4 at that point.
The two Flowers got together, with a record of having scored over 12,000 ODI runs in partnership. Consolidation was on the cards, but again, two wickets fell in quick succession: Grant Flower attempted to sneak a quick single to mid off, and was well short when the fielder attacked the ball, got to it early and flung down the stumps. In the next over, Andy Blignaut took a start but was sent back by Taitenda Taibu after the Zimbabwean keeper pushed out on the off side. Brendon McCullum raced around, grabbed the ball at short point, and threw to Vettori who whipped the bails off -- Blignaut was given out by umpire Rudi Koertzen, a decision that provoked some discussion.
Koertzen was blinded by Vettori's boot being over the line and obscuring Blignaut's bat as it slid home -- however, he gave the decision without referring to the third umpire. As it turned out, Blignaut was out; yet, on such a close decision, the umpire not referring to the third umpire provoked some discussion.
Taibu and Streak then got together in a partnership of 68 off 119 deliveries (Taibu 35 in 60, Streak 30 in 59). It was an interesting period, the overs between the 24th, when Blignaut was out, and the 44th, when Taibu fell. New Zealand kept hunting for wickets, but were kept at bay by Streak playing a composed defensive innings, and by Taibu playing an eye-opening one.
The diminutive keeper impressed with the way he got behind the line of each delivery, even against Bond; his game was marked by tight technique and impeccable temperament.
Taibu finally fell trying to do a Marillier -- extending his bat down the track, face to the skies, looking to scoop the ball over the wicket-keeper but missing and being struck on the pad in front of the stumps. No blame would attach to that dismissal by that point, Zimbabwe, 174 in the 44th over, clearly needed to get a move on.
You had to figure that Fleming, who is rated the best captain on view in this World Cup, missed several bets at this period. For one, Scott Styris stayed off the bowling crease for some reason. For another, as long as the Zimbabwe score was trickling along (110/6 after 25, 119/6 after 30, 133/6 in 35, a mere 151/6 in 40), Fleming seemed content to sit on the splice, keeping his long on and long off fielders deep in the face of Taibu and Streak consistently driving down the straight field and walking singles.
The singles, at that point, did not seem particularly significant -- but what they did was allow Taibu and Streak to accumulate sans pressure, waiting for the bad ball to hit and keep the innings ticking over without further loss of wickets.
All along, Streak had reined in his natural big hitting instincts, and looked to accumulate with gentle pushes into the outfield. In company of Irvine, he kept at it for another four overs and then, in the 38th, began opening his shoulders in a flat out assault on the Kiwi bowlers that was spectacular in the extreme. What worked in Zimbawe's favor was the fact that when Streak took a single, Ervine proved equally capable of clean, classical hitting -- both batsmen peppered the straight and square boundaries with a stream of lofted drives and pulls that yielded 78 deliveries off just 39 balls, including 62 in the last 19.
252/7 on the board was an interesting target -- especially for those prone to examining random straws in the wind. The most visible straw lay in the Kiwi record on chases: on 67 occasions, the Black Caps have had to hunt down targets in excess of 250; they have succeeded only on 13 of those occasions.
Precedent, however, counted for little against a team feeling good after a thumping chase under adverse conditions against South Africa. The Kiwis apparently have a problem with the slot of second opener: Fleming is on record as saying that promoting Vettori in a preliminary game was not as a pinch-hitter but as a protector of Astle.
Fleming argued that Astle is vulnerable in the first four or five overs, and that if he could be saved through that period, he tends to go on to play the long innings. He was vindicated then, he was vindicated again here -- but this time, it was McMillan who was the sacrificial goat.
Sent in to open, the clearly out of form McMillan fiddled around, until he chased a wide Douglas Hondo delivery to the keeper.
Fleming however looked in immaculate touch, alternating some superb flicks off the pads with free-flowing cover drives that were works of the batsman's art. Scoring at a rapid pace, Fleming raced to 46 off 42 deliveries before getting rapped on the pads playing down the wrong line as Blignaut went wide of the crease and angled a ball in at the Kiwi skipper's off stump.
Styris had an unimpressive outing -- the big hitting batsman, who before this game had 215 runs in this World Cup off 215 deliveries, looked in good touch but holed out trying to pull a delivery from Blignaut, wide of off and above his eyeline, over the square leg fence, and this dismissal put the onus on Cairns and Astle.
The two produced a classic exhibition of pacing the chase, in a partnership of 121 off 149 deliveries (Astle 60/76, Cairns 54/73) that guided New Zealand from an iffy 97/3 in the 20th over, to a comfortable 218/4 at the end of the 44th.
Both batsmen put their head down to the task of working the ball around the square, taking singles at will and keeping the board ticking over, only occasionally uncorking the big hits. Like Fleming in the first half of the game, Streak missed a bet when for long spells, he kept the straight fielders deep, permitting both Astle and Cairns to drive in the V and walk singles.
The intent was obvious -- the two batsmen coasted through the middle overs and focused on making sure that the ask did not climb above the 6 an over mark; with plenty of big-hitting batsmen left in the hut, that was in fact all they had to do.
Streak's only chance was to get wickets, an endeavor in which he was handicapped by the fact that he just did not have the bowlers to exploit the slow-ish nature of the track. Brian Murphy was an interesting option (and was, in fact, the best bowler when these two teams last met two years ago), but for some reason, Murphy never took the field, raising questions about why he was included in this squad when the likes of Travis Friend and Marillier were still available.
The only chance Zimbabwe had was when Cairns went down on one knee looking to hoick over midwicket, put it up, and saw three fielders -- leg slip, midwicket, and backward square leg, converge on the ball. It was backward square's catch, as he was running forward towards the ball, but Marillier, the fielder in question, appeared confused by the other two. Strangely given Zimbabwe's fielding credentials, none of the three called for the catch, and that one slim chance went down.
By the time Cairns left, attempting to loft Erwine down the straight field and playing all over a delivery that jagged in off the seam onto middle stump, the Kiwis were coasting home. Chris Harris came out, tapped the ball around, waited for Astle to move to his third century against Zimbabwe, and then opened out to finish off the game inside the distance.
The Kiwis ended with four points, taking their tally to eight -- they now have Australia (Tuesday March 11) and India (March 14) ahead of them, and need to win at least one to progress into the next round.
Zimbabwe, stuck on 3.5 points, have the easier job to do -- they play Kenya next, followed by Sri Lanka; victories against both will give them 11.5 points and maybe, just maybe, an outside chance of sneaking a last four slot.