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Saturday, September 26, 2009

Australia survive West Indies scare

On paper it looked like being a mismatch. On paper, it appears Australia had an easy 50-run victory. In reality there were several nervous periods for Ricky Ponting's men throughout a game they were expected to win comfortably. In the end, the target of 276, set up by strong batting from Ponting and Mitchell Johnson, was too big for a second-string West Indies outfit. But not by much.
Ponting will demand more discipline from his bowlers against India and Pakistan after they lacked incision against a starless West Indies top order. West Indies showed plenty of fight, first through the middle overs with the ball and then through Andre Fletcher and Travis Dowlin with the bat. They were 124 for 1 during the 25th over and on a pitch that had dried out and lost some of the demons from earlier in the day, an upset could have been on the cards.
Fletcher worked hard and showed uncharacteristic restraint to post his second half-century in one-day internationals. He was scratchy early but worked his way into the game, using his sheer strength to thump four fours and a six, before the chasm in experience - the 11 West Indies players entered the game with a combined 117 ODI caps compared to Australia's 927 - began to show.
An outrageously poor piece of running cost Fletcher his wicket when he pushed Brett Lee to mid-off, took off slowly and rather than diving to try and make his ground, jumped in the air outside his crease as he wrongly anticipated Johnson's throw missing. The Australians saw Fletcher's carefree - or careless - attitude to crease management on his ODI debut last year, when he was run out strolling aimlessly out of his ground, and he clearly hasn't learnt his lesson.
That was followed by an unfathomable decision to promote the wicketkeeper Chadwick Walton, fresh from his golden duck on debut against Pakistan, to No. 4 with Dale Richards injured and unable to bat. Walton improved - he made a second-ball duck to James Hopes this time - but his horrid attempted slog that was edged back onto the stumps when so fresh to the crease reeked of inexperience and panic.
These things can happen with young players but West Indies needed everything to go their way to beat Australia and they quickly moved from a position of potential to a state of vulnerability. Dowlin (55), though trying admirably, just couldn't score his runs quickly enough and was caught top-edging Lee.
Nor was there fast scoring from the captain Floyd Reifer, who at 37 appears to have reflexes just a fraction too slow for international cricket. Reifer's only experience against any Australian side came in 1990, when he played against a touring Australian youth team that featured the likes of Damien Fleming and Michael Bevan, and the current selector Jamie Cox.
Against the speed of Lee and Johnson, he was unable to do much but defend and made 28 from 56 balls. He couldn't follow the earlier lead of Fletcher and Dowlin, who rotated the strike so well that until Fletcher's run-out they had managed 24 singles from the previous 33 balls.
Two consecutive sixes from Darren Sammy off Johnson gave Australia another fright when the equation came in to 66 required from 50 balls, but when Sammy was caught on the boundary their momentum disappeared. It was a shame that West Indies' chase petered out like that, for they had provided a much greater contest than anyone anticipated. But the longer the format the more likely the best team will win; were it a Twenty20 contest anything could have happened.
Australia began the match as almost unbackable favourites, fresh from a 6-1 win over England, and facing a team that is the cricket equivalent of an office full of temp workers. Less than a week after playing in Durham at the end of a four-month tour, this was effectively Australia's warm-up match for their next games against India and Pakistan.
Things didn't begin well for Australia when they were sent in and Shane Watson was bowled by a cracking late inswinging yorker from Kemar Roach with the first ball of the match. A spicy Wanderers pitch added some heat to what could have been a lifeless encounter and Roach, Sammy and Gavin Tonge enjoyed hitting the cracks.
Andre Fletcher guided West Indies' chase with 54 © AFP
Several balls jagged sharply back or found extra bounce from a good length and one steep riser from Sammy surprised Ponting so much that he dropped the bat when the ball rapped him on the hands. It was more of a concern for Tim Paine (33), who stayed with Ponting for an 85-run second-wicket stand but was much less fluent than his captain.
Ponting latched onto anything wide from the seamers and twice Roach went for 17 off an over, straying to leg too often. The West Indies fast men needed to do more early damage in the wickets column given the uncomfortable bounce, and it was left to the spinner Nikita Miller to peg things back.
Australia had reached 148 for 3 in the 31st over when Miller turned one past Ponting, who was stumped by Walton, and Miller then spun one through Cameron White's defences to clip the off stump. A superb 10 overs from Miller earned him 2 for 24 without conceding a boundary, but when the fast men returned the danger for Australia eased.
The key for Australia was Johnson's late unbeaten 73. His fierce, clean hitting brought back memories of his highly entertaining 96 in the Test against South Africa at the same venue this year, when he sent several Paul Harris deliveries into the stands. This time, he had the benefit of gaps in the outfield as Australia took the batting Powerplay from the start of the 45th over and added an incredible 69 in those five overs.
Johnson cleared the boundary three times and finished with his highest ODI score as he and Lee posted a 70-run stand. It was enough to give Australia 275, thought not without their murmurs of worry. They experienced further palpitations during West Indies' innings before getting across the line. A sharper effort will be required against India and Pakistan.
Brydon Coverdale is a staff writer at Cricinfo

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