If Harry Houdini were alive today, he would have taken up residence in Port Elizabeth, to take lessons from the Australian cricket team in the art of effecting incredible escapes from impossible situations.
At St George's Park on March 2, Australia, chasing a modest target of 205 against England, were 114/7 after 31 overs -- and pulled off a two-wicket win against the odds, powered by a superb partnership between Michael Bevan and Andy Bichel.
Today, at the same ground, Fleming and Bond scripted a thrilling beginning. Stephen (not Ian) Fleming won the toss and inserted Australia; Shane (not James) Bond had the Aussies reeling with a spell of sizzling pace allied to the kind of control over line and length you expect from medium pacers, to put Australia on the mat at 84/7.
Michael Bevan then teamed up with Andy Bichel to bat the side out of jail, the two putting up a partnership of 97 off 130 deliveries before Brett Lee, with two huge sixes off the last two deliveries of the innings, pushed the Aussies over the 200 mark.
209 to win on this track was, you would have said, not enough -- but in a game whose progress seemed dictated more by nerves than by cricket, the Kiwis crumbled to an incredible 112 all out.
The opening overs were interesting for those who have been examining this Aussie squad for vulnerabilities. Shane Bond bowled a very full length and, noticeably, both Matthew Hayden and Adam Gilchrist, two openers who like to stand outside the crease and attack the new ball, were pushed back onto the defensive.
Point for future opponents: The Aussie openers don't like to be attacked by quality pace bowling.
Bond forced Hayden to square up and glide a slanting delivery through to McCullum behind the stumps; Gilchrist was squared up and pinned on top of the crease to force the LBW and, shortly afterwards, Ricky Ponting -- now officially established as Bond's bunny -- drove in desperation to a delivery outside off-stump and edged to Fleming at first slip.
The period of play produced moments of interest. Andre Adams went for 9 runs in his first over, and was promptly replaced by Vettori. Fleming, playing mind games with his opposite number, put a slip in place and then stationed himself at the shortest cover you ever saw -- just in front of Ponting and looking straight into his face. Vettori responded by tossing a delivery on off on length that, incredibly, saw Ponting go back and stand bemused as the ball spun dramatically across the bat face and go through to the keeper.
The next over produced Ponting's wicket -- with Fleming holding; poetic justice you would have said given that the two days before the game has been filled with Ponting's statements about what Brett Lee would do to Fleming.
With wickets falling, Fleming brought back Adams -- and Lehmann obliged. Walking across his stumps as though it was the last over of the innings, Lehmann looked to work a slanting delivery across to leg, and found the outer edge going to gully.
Damien Martyn, batting with control and commonsense, and Michael Bevan seemed to be on the road to recovery when Fleming threw the dice again, and brought back Bond. The bowler responded with an incredible second spell of 4-2-3-3.
Bond set up Martyn with a series of deliveries on length and cutting in, then seamed one away at pace the other way and found the edge to the keeper. Brad Hogg was pinned first ball by a late-swinging yorker that landed on his boot in front of the stumps. And Ian Harvey, looking to play off to leg, was bowled middle stump by yet another sizzler, landing on line of off and bending in through the gate.
From that point on, it was all about Bevan and Bichel, who batted with the marrow-deep certainty of true champions.
Neither batsman looked for shots -- playing very straight, both were content to work the ball around, playing out dot balls with no sign of panic, seemingly intent on just batting through the overs, and letting the runs came when they would.
Bevan was the anchor, intent on taking a single, and watching from the other end while Bichel complemented his enviable defensive technique with a willingness to rock back to anything short and play the forcing horizontal bat shots. The dynamics of their partnership is evident in their individual contributions: out of the 97 (130 deliveries) the two added for the 8th wicket, Bevan contributed just 36 off 52 deliveries while Bichel recorded his first ODI half century, producing a card of 56 in 78 deliveries.
An umpiring error in the 31st over helped things along -- Bevan, appearing momentarily to have lost track of his off stump, pushed his pad at a delivery from Chris Harris on line of off and middle, and was struck plumb in front, only for the appeal to be turned down.
From then on, the two accumulated. The 7th wicket had falled in the 27th over. The two pushed Australia to 91/7 after 30, 109/7 after 35, 128/7 after 40, and then gradually stepped up the tempo, moving to 163/7 after 45.
The partnership was a demonstration of the importance of singles: the Aussie innings in toto comprised 77 singles and 14 twos. Of these, Bichel and Bevan between them accounted for 50 singles and 7 twos.
Both batsmen fell after the 45-over mark in an attempt to open out their shoulders, Bevan mis-hitting a short delivery to mid off, and Bichel getting a leading edge to mid on. McGrath then got his name in the record books by getting his first runs in World Cup matches, before Lee ended the innings in fine style, slamming Andre Adams for a huge six over long on off the 5th ball of the 50th over, and off the next ball, went down on one knee to carve the bowler over point.
If India had the opposition down at 84/7 and allowed it to get away to 208/9, questions would be asked. Much more so, then, does the question deserve to be asked here, given that Fleming is rated the best captain in this tournament, the most strategically sound. So where did he go wrong?
Probably nowhere, really -- Fleming's single biggest problem is that he has only one wicket taker in Shane Bond. Vettori and Harris turned in very good, controlled spells that kept the Aussies from mounting an assault -- but then, in context of the game, neither Bevan nor Bichel were likely to go berserk in the middle overs anyway, so both bowlers were bowling without pressure on them.
The real problem lay with the likes of Oram, Adams and Styris, who proved incapable of holding either a steady length, or a line -- all three bowled both sides of the wicket and alternated their lengths, and thus allowed the Aussies freedom to push the ball around and work the field to brilliant effect.
This paucity of bowling resources raises an interesting question -- whatever happened to one Mr Darryl Tuffey? Those who followed India's misadventures in New Zealand earlier this year will surely recall the bowler who made a fetish of taking a wicket in his first over, and who seemed virtually unplayable on those damp tracks.
Where is he now, would you know?
If the Australian innings was fraught with interest, the New Zealand response ranks among the biggest damp squibs in this tournament till date. There was much interest on how Brett Lee would go after Fleming -- a first spell of 5-0-31-0 pretty much answers that question, as Lee produced a performance as wayward as Bond's was controlled.
At the other end, however, the Black Caps seemed intent on enhancing Glenn McGrath's reputation. Daniel Vettori, sent in to protect the batsmen from the new ball (at least, that is how Fleming explained the promotion earlier in this tournament) swished at a harmless delivery angled across him, and touched it through to Gilchrist.
Nathan Astle, at number three, did what you expect tail-enders to do -- with both feet rooted in place, he clinically opened the bat face away from his body and guided a delivery going outside his off stump to Ponting in the slips.
Styris, for his part, stood pinned to the top of the crease, feet going nowhere, bat coming down somewhere from third slip looking to work a full length delivery across the line to the on side. Hit on the pad in front of middle stump, thank you very much.
The advent of Chris Cairns seemed -- only seemed, mind you -- to produce moments of sanity. The tall all-rounder got behind the line of the ball and played very straight, punctuating his careful knock with a superb hit when he picked a McGrath delivery from outside off and deposited it, all power and timing, over long on.
With Fleming at the other end playing a controlled knock, watching most deliveries go through and pouncing on the slightest error in line and length to find the boundaries, the Kiwis recovered from 33/3 in the 7th over, to 66 in the 14th. By this time, Lee and McGrath had been seen off, Bichel and Ian Harvey looked tight without being threatening, and the Kiwis merely had to accumulate singles and bat out the overs to win.
Bichel produced a delivery wide of off, Cairns had a huge swing looking to deposit the ball somewhere outside the wide long off region, and ended up holing out to Brett Lee at third man off the outer edge of the bat -- an instance of total abdication of responsibility.
(Interestingly, as Cairns walked down the pitch on the way to the pavilion, Ricky Ponting came sprinting in from cover, and had a few words to say --- words that saw Cairns having a chat with the umpire on his way out).
At this point, Lee was brought back -- and it all ended in a hurry. Fleming swung into a wild pull at a short ball that would have been wided had he not got the merest touch through to the keeper; a rather sorry way to end a calm, controlled innings. Lee then produced a late-swinging yorker to trap Brendan McCullum in front; made one straighten on off to beat Jacob Oram's blind push and peg back off stump off the very next ball; produced another blistering yorker to clean up Andre Adams, and rounded off his 5-wicket haul in style, lifting one into Bond and as the tailender fended at it, checking in his follow through to dive headlong and snaffle the catch millimeters off the deck.
Five wickets, including Fleming's, had gone for 10 runs -- and Bond, whose first spell had produced 31 runs in five overs, had a second spell that read 4.1-2-11-5 wickets.
Twice, Australia was looking down the barrel against traditional rivals. On both occasions, they got back up and turned the tables on the opposition -- and in the process, demonstrated that their real strength lies not in their batting or bowling, but in a state of mind that refuses to acknowledge they are beaten until the last delivery is bowled and the result is actually up on the scoreboard.
Fleming can take one final thought to bed with him -- the Bichel-Bevan association produced 97 runs, and Australia won by 96.
A thought, too, for Australia's future opponents -- Ponting's men appear to have bought heavily into their own legend, of an attacking side that goes hard at the ball and insists on a run rate of 5+ an over, no matter what. Twice, this side has found itself playing on the slow Port Elizabeth wicket, twice it has gotten into trouble playing too many shots on a track where the ball is not coming on (the same mistake that New Zealand made, incidentally -- which makes you wonder how teams with so much back up by way of analysts and coaches get it so horribly wrong), twice it has taken a last minute rescue act to get it out of trouble.
Interestingly, Australia will play its semifinal at the same venue; the opposing captain in that ground might want his bowlers to take the pace completely off the ball, and sit back and see what happens.