Prem Panicker

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Prem has been writing about cricket since 1996 -- and sometimes wishes he hadn't.

Live: Australia versus New Zealand

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New Zealand: Overs 16-20: 83/6

Finally, a ball that deserved a wicket: Shaun Tait, off the last ball of the 17th over, fired a yorker in on perfect length and fast as you like; Ross Taylor, still to recover from the earlier snorter, had no chance to keep that one out of his stumps; it didn't help that he was in a tangle and playing all around the line of the ball anyway (Taylor 7 off 22; NZ 73 for 6).

At the 20 over mark, Jamie How and Nathan McCullum have been together for three overs and have added 10 runs. In context of all that has gone before, that seems like a miracle in itself.

No, seriously -- this kind of self-inflicted misery would have seemed shabby in a team classed in the "minnow" category. From a side like New Zealand, even given its recent run of 'form', this is little short of pathetic. And neither the pitch, nor the bowling, have had much to do with this -- the wicket has been decent if not optimal; the bowling has been, with the possible exception of Lee, largely workmanlike, rather than inspired.

New Zealand: Overs 11-15: 68/5

Johnson is no fan of left-handed batsmen -- possibly because his stock delivery, the one angling across the right hander and then going further off the seam, is taken out of play when he bowls to a southpaw.

Ryder showed him up in the 12th over, when he crunched a pull off a short delivery, first up; when Johnson tried to compensate, he strayed onto the pads and was promptly flicked fine on the leg side.

Ryder's major fault is his propensity to get himself out -- and an over after he had taken to Johnson, that trait surfaced when Johnson in the 14th bowled one in the channel around off, that moved a shade off the seam. Ryder, with feet going nowhere, poked at it outside his off, and the regulation edge found Haddin with no trouble (Ryder 25 off 31; Kiwis 66/3). To Johnson's credit, that was as good a ball as you can bowl to left-handers -- angling into off, hitting in line, moving back out with the seam.

The thing about Johnson is he is a form bowler -- if he gets off to a bad start, he can go through the entirety of a match in a personal nightmare; against that, if through good bowling, chance, circumstance, whatever, he tastes blood early on, he becomes devastatingly effective.

Two deliveries after taking out Ryder, Johnson tried it again. This time the ball wasn't as good as the one to Ryder -- a touch shorter, and much further outside off. There was no need to play at it, but Franklin, new to the crease and by any yardstick batting way out of his pay grade at #5, drove at it without moving any part of his body other than his arms, and gave Haddin another easy take (Franklin 0 off 3).

At the other end, Taylor was having his own troubles just getting off the mark -- till Watson generously sprayed one short and wide of leg. Hilariously, the ball was so bad Taylor got into a tangle trying to figure out what it was doing -- and ended up fortuitously gloving it down to the third man fence to get off the mark.

Ponting, sensing blood, brought Tait back in place of Watson -- and first up, the bowler thudded one into Taylor's hand as the batsman took his eye off the ball. That produced a fortuitous single; it also brought Scott Styris to the batting end and, first up, the right handed all rounder slashed at a rubbish ball from Tait, short, wide and going straight through outside off; another edge, another regulation take for Braddin (Styris 0 off 4).

The one image that lingers is of the Kiwi dressing room as the Aussies celebrated Johnson's double strike. Sitting with chin cupped in hand, wearing a wry expression Indians fans will readily recognize, was the Kiwi coach John Wright. 'Oh no, it's deja vu all over again,' he likely thought as he remembered his early days with the Indian team, before things settled down and the side began to make him proud.

At the 15 over mark, this game is as good as over -- the Kiwis have half the side back in the hut; the lower half doesn't inspire confidence, and what is worse is, they only have themselves to blame for this plight. The Australian bowling, barring Lee, has been steady, but nowhere near spectacular.




New Zealand: Overs 6-10: 49/2

Inevitably, Ponting decided to give the wayward Tait (2-0-20-1) a break, sent him off to the outfield to cool his brain a bit, and brought Mitch Johnson on as replacement. Smart move -- Tait at one end was undoing all the pressure Lee was building at the other. And Johnson, perhaps as predictably, started with a maiden.

A major landmark was reached in the 7th over when, off the fifth ball, Martin Guptill drove one towards mid off and took two. That was the 19th ball he was facing, and the first runs he had scored -- largely because the majority of the balls he faced were from Lee (10) and Johnson (6), and both bowlers kept it just short enough to keep the batsman from playing the drive that is his bread and butter shot. Guptill celebrated by leaning back to a predictably short ball from Lee next up, and hitting up and under, eased it to the third man fence behind the keeper by way of celebrating breaking his drought.

Ponting took Lee (4-1-11-0) off and brought Shane Watson on -- possibly to keep from tiring his premier pacer out. Guptill greeted him with a flowing drive through mid on for four -- but two deliveries later, the bowler and the pitch combined to take the Kiwi right-hander out.

The ball landed on length or fractionally short; Guptill's footwork was indecisive, he stayed rooted to the top of the crease and tentatively poked at the ball. As it turned out, the ball kept low -- far lower than the length dictated -- and sneaked under the bottom of the bat to hit off stump (Guptill 10 off 25; New Zealand 40/2). So now it is official -- this wicket is a bit two-faced, and that is going to pose bigger problems as the ball gets older and softer, and the less express bowlers are in operation.

The talented Jesse Ryder -- who in the past has tended to get himself out with little or no help from the bowling -- made up, to an extent, for the double blow to the Kiwis, taking on Martin Johnson in the 10th over and creaming two successive fours off the first two balls. Johnson looks relatively uncomfortable bowling to the left-handers, and Ryder took advantage with a crisp pull followed by a delicate whip off the pads when Johnson, under pressure, sprayed the next ball down the leg side.

All said, all done, the first ten overs belong to Australia -- the fielding side got the dangerous McCullum before he could cause any damage; kept Guptill tied up in knots and took him out, and have kept the Kiwis from breaking free. Ross Taylor and Ryder, the two batsmen at the crease, have a job before them now -- they need to score reasonably quickly, and yet preserve their wickets. Against this bowling and fielding, neither task is easy.

New Zealand: Overs 1-5: 25/1

Brett Lee has played 194 ODIs; Shaun Tait has played 30. The difference experience brings showed in the opening exchanges.

Lee, opening the bowling, straight off hit a very tight line around off and got a fair degree of movement both in the air and off the wicket. Largely, he stuck to the fullish length, using the shorter one sparingly by way of variety. Control worked, with Lee kicking off with a maiden, giving just one in his second over, and a boundary to cover off the last ball of the third, to Jesse Ryder, after having tied him up for five successive deliveries.

At the other end, Tait began with two wides before bowling his first legitimate ball; he produced a snorter that banged into McCullum's arm off just short of length, but then bowled one short and wide that the batsman got under and smashed to the point fence. In similar fashion, he began the second over with a no-ball; the free-hit ball was very short and too high; he had to bowl that one again, went short outside off, and again McCullum got under it and tennis-batted it to the backward point fence...

Ricky Ponting, nurse-maiding a finger injury by fielding at mid off, had a fairly busy time of it, walking up frequently to talk to his wayward fast bowler.

Just when it seemed as if Tait would implode, a slice of luck came along. The 3rd legitimate ball of the 4th over, Tait's second, was wayward -- fullish, but wide of off stump and skittering away. McCullum went for it in a big way, but only managed to carve it off the thick bottom edge, high in the air to third man for a comfortable catch by Jason Krejza (McCullum 16/12; New Zealand 20/1).

In passing, was fairly startled to see the 5th ball of the first over, from Lee, landing just short of good length and scoot through somewhere between Martin Guptill's ankle and knee. That was the only aberrant pitch behavior in these first five overs, though -- otherwise, the pitch has played kosher, even if a bit on the lower side.


Toss and teams:

Ricky Ponting has won the toss; Australia will bowl first -- a decision seemingly prompted by the overcast conditions in Nagpur.

The Aussie lineup: Shane Watson, Brad Haddin, Ricky Ponting, Clarke, Hussey, White, Smith, Johnson, Krejza, Lee and Tait.

The Kiwis: Guptill, McCullum, Ryder, Taylor, Franklin, Styris, How, Vettori, McCullum, Southee, Bennett

Next update after the first five overs of the Kiwi innings. Here's to a good game

Pre-game:

It's Australia. The defending champions. Who, lately, couldn't even hang on to the ashes of the Ashes. That they thumped England 6-1 in the one day series following the Ashes is an inconvenient factoid that shouldn't come in the way of schadenfreude -- and if it comes to that, we can always argue that Ricky Ponting's absence made all the difference then, and that his presence now will put his team back on the back foot.

When Australia was on top, it ground the noses of the rest of the cricketing world in it with ruthless efficiency; little wonder then that there is more than a little glee at watching the giants get their comeuppance.

Write them off at your peril, though: after a lot of trial and considerable error, the defending champs are finally beginning to put together a bowling attack that looks like it means business. What the Aussies have lacked in recent months was an enforcer -- a bowler who could not merely impose his will on the opposition, but also soften them up for his mates. In Brett Lee, now making a scarcely credible come-back, they have found that pivot, the fulcrum (a role McGrath played to perfection not so long ago) the rest can bowl around. With Tait's fire to back Lee, and with Jason Krejza providing the genuine spin option the Aussies have been searching for ever since Shane Warne left off his cricketing whites and went away to romance sundry A-listers, the Aussies have finally put the "attack" into their bowling.

That in turn takes the pressure off a batting lineup that is admittedly a pale shadow of the one that, four years ago, won the Cup in fine style. One problem the batting has had in recent times is the weakness of the bowling, which meant the batsmen went in never knowing just how much would be enough. Without that pressure, the Aussie top order has shown increasing signs of finding its collective feet again -- and all of that adds up to a dangerous combination, buttressed by the fact that they, more than any other side, know what it takes to win a multi-nation tournament.

Against that, there's New Zealand -- in recent times, the easy-beats of international cricket. The bowling looks ordinary; the batting is erratic (the fielding remains top class, but hey).

On the surface, this is a mis-match -- but that is to ignore two possibly key elements. One is the Kiwi mentality every time they are faced with the men in green and gold -- something about Australia brings out the best in them. The other is a man named John Wright -- the self-effacing New Zealander who, when at the helm of the Indian team, was the first to show the Indians, and the world, that it was possible to stand up to the Aussies and to make them back down.

He hasn't been at the helm of New Zealand long enough to really make a difference, but you can bet the bank that even in his short stint, he would have introduced into the side a measure of the pragmatism that is the cornerstone of his coaching philosophy.

This game could, in the final analysis, prove as one-sided as any of the earlier ones involving the official "minnows" but -- and that is the hope that drives those of us watching -- the Kiwis just might decide to bring it. And if that happens... ah, joy, after a week of the most deadly dull games you could want to endure.

Right -- back with the live blog, in five over installments, from 9.20. See you at the game; here's to a good one. Oh, and as always, the more politically incorrect comments will surface on my Twitter stream.

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