Australia have held their nerve to clinch a thrilling win over New Zealand to keep their World Cup form surge going, after their brutal 388 was nearly run down by a never say die Black Caps chase.
Looking all but home at the halfway mark after a spectacular Travis Head century as part of a brutal opening stand with David Warner (81), late fireworks from Glenn Maxwell (41), Josh Inglis (38) and Pat Cummins (37 off 14 balls) ensured an enormous total was set even before four wickets fell for just one run.
But New Zealand, courtesy of a sublime century from prodigy Rachin Ravindra, very nearly pulled off an unthinkable heist, with a late blitzkrieg from all-rounder Jimmy Neesham (58 off 39) taking them to the brink of victory.
Having brought the requirement down to seven from the last two, Neesham’s run out, the second of a pair of brilliant, game-saving fielding efforts from Marnus Labuschagne in the deep, proved the clincher, sparing Mitchell Starc’s blushes after he had begun the final over with a disastrous five wides to complete a wayward evening.
“It’s nice to be back, nice to be contributing,” player of the match Head said after the match following his 59-ball century in his first match since breaking a hand on Australia’s tour of South Africa.
“It was a hell of a game.”
While Head’s century proved the match-winning knock, it in no way overshadowed Ravindra’s later epic, the 23-year old continuing his rise into the game’s elite with his second ton of the tournament after an unbeaten hundred in the Black Caps’ win over England.
With nine fours and five sixes, the elegant left-hander seldom played a false stroke in a perfectly paced 89-ball innings, his 116 ensuring a match that seemed gone after Australia’s innings needed to be defended tooth and nail.
“When you’re chasing a score close to 400, you have to pretty much play the perfect game… Rachin played a fantastic knock, one of the better ones you’ll see chasing in a game of cricket,” Black Caps captain Tom Latham said after the match.
“To get so close was a great effort. I’m pretty proud of the guys.”
The win sees Australia move four points and net run rate clear into the top four of the tournament group stage, though still net run rate behind the Black Caps in third, having missed the chance to leapfrog them with a bigger win – and thereby likely avoid tournament favourites and table-toppers India in the semi-finals.
“That was awesome. Sometimes I had to remember I was on the middle of the cricket field and not a spectator,” a relieved Cummins said after the match.
“It was a good wicket… in patches we bowled really well and at other times probably gave too much width away.
“We’ve got about a five or six-day break now, so we’ll think on this one for a little while, enjoy this one, and then get stuck into the back end.”
Having won the toss and chosen to send Australia in, Latham had instant cause to regret his decision as Warner and Head took the long handle to his seam attack with an incredible opening onslaught.
Just 53 balls were needed for the pair to bring up a century stand – the fastest of its kind by some distance at this tournament – and no one summed up the New Zealanders’ disarray more than Matt Henry.
A trio of sixes from Warner and Head into the Dharamsala sky within four balls were compounded by the seamer twice overstepping to add to the orgy of runs, the right-armer’s usual reliable accuracy only aiding the Aussie openers as he leaked 44 from his first three overs.
Warner’s 50, adding on to his consecutive centuries in Australia’s two previous matches, took just 28 balls to be reached; as if determined to one-up his senior partner, Head needed just 25, reaching the milestone with a straight six and thumping pull as Mitchell Santner became the latest Black Cap to cop the brunt of the assault.
Even more brutal than Warner and Mitchell Marsh’s blitzkrieg against Pakistan, this opening stand would, mercifully for New Zealand, ‘only’ reach 175 before the unlikely part-time spin of Phillips, a renowned golden arm this tournament, clung to a simple return catch as Warner fell for 81 to deny himself a third straight century.
There was no stopping Head, however, who brought up the milestone off just 59 balls in an extraordinarily seamless return to the top of the order after more than a month on the sidelines.
Having brought up the 200 in just 23 overs, Australia’s first 400-plus total since the 2015 World Cup looked all but a formality, especially with Lockie Ferguson managing just three expensive overs before leaving the field with an Achilles injury to cut his day short.
But the Black Caps would rally and begin to tighten the screws, Phillips most of all.
Coming into the match as the team’s sixth, and perhaps even seventh, bowler, Phillips’ canny changes of pace and unerring accuracy successfully becalmed Marsh especially.
By the time he finished a marathon middle-overs spell, his 10 overs had conceded just 37 runs – even handier, he’d picked up two wickets, Head bowled through the gate for 106 and Steve Smith chipping to mid-off trying to force the pace.
With Marsh’s return to first drop proving unsuccessful, struggling to 36 off 51 balls and unable to rotate the strike against the spinners before being comprehensively bowled by Santner, Australia needed another Maxwell special to secure the big score that looked theirs for the taking with Warner and Head running amok.
That they got, with the Victorian at his inventive best in clubbing a momentum-restoring 41 off just 24 balls, including a monstrous straight six off Santner onto the Dharamsala stadium roof.
His dismissal with more than five overs would have come as welcome relief to New Zealand, but an unlikely onslaught from Cummins, providing the sort of late cameo he has regularly provided in the IPL, ensured Maxwell’s departure was barely felt.
With Josh Inglis for company, the captain would help add 62 runs for the seventh wicket in just 28 balls, the highlight three sweetly struck sixes off Jimmy Neesham to take him to a remarkable 37 off just 13 balls.
Frazzled once again, the Black Caps’ usually superb fielding took a rapid nose dive: few misfields this tournament will be worse than sub fielder Ish Sodhi, on for Ferguson, allowing an Inglis clip to fine leg straight through his legs for four; though Ravindra would do his best to one-up him by dropping the same batter’s simple offering at long off one ball before Cummins began his six-hitting onslaught.
As if the innings needed any further drama, Australia would then proceed to lose their final four wickets for just one run to, remarkably, fail to complete their 50 overs.
With Trent Boult making up for his earlier waywardness with a pinpoint penultimate over, removing Inglis and Cummins within three balls before finishing by splattering Zampa’s stumps for a duck, Starc’s holing out to begin the final over ensured New Zealand wouldn’t be chasing 400 – though the tally of 388 on the board was already imposing enough.
With Conway the prized wicket for Australia, a fiery opening to the Black Caps’ innings would have raised a few concerns, with the Aussies sufficiently concerned about his danger to burn a review on an optimistic caught behind neither Hazlewood nor Inglis seemed overly interested in.
60 runs off the first seven overs, Conway with 28 of them, seemed to confirm Australia’s fears; little would they know his downfall, superbly held at short fine leg by Starc, would bring the true danger man to the crease.
It took some doing to reach a higher batting level than what Head had managed earlier in the innings, but Ravindra, though far from as brutal, was no less spectacular.
Beginning slowly and allowing Daryl Mitchell to keep the scoreboard ticking over, the big-hitting all-rounder reaching 50 off 42 balls amid a flurry of sweetly timed drives, Ravindra, whose first name ‘Rachin’ comes from his cricket-mad father combining the names of two of his heroes in Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar, almost inexorably snuck up on Australia with a match-turning knock.
With his first six bringing him to 50 – off just 49 balls despite the lack of heavy hitting – Ravindra was set, and the shot-making only grew more superlative from there.
Even with Mitchell having holed out off Zampa trying for a third lofted boundary in the over to give Starc his third catch of the innings, the 23-year old continued on his merry way with Latham for company; with 30 overs to go, a target of 181 remaining seemed, in a T20 generation, eminently chaseable.
But an Australian wicket was never far away, Latham looking to force the pace and coming unstuck reverse-sweeping straight to Hazlewood at backward point.
Through it all, the youngster remained the key, a gorgeous lofted drive for six off a Cummins slower ball Ravindra’s most authoritative stroke yet.
Another pair of sixes off Zampa and Maxwell would bring up his second century of the tournament, off just 77 balls – an as if to furrow Australian brows further, he’d follow one ball later by popping a simple return chance back to Maxwell, who promptly shelled it.
Though the Victorian would rebound by removing Phillips, caught failing to clear Labuschagne at mid-off for a scratchy 12, while Ravindra remained alive, so too did the Black Caps.
With 97 needed from the final 10 overs, the young gun and Neesham had successfully kept the run rate beneath 10 an over – but not for the first time in the innings, Australia would strike a timely blow just as things seemed to be getting out of hand.
This time, it was the big fish himself, Ravindra’s sensational innings ended at last on 116 as another Cummins slower ball was mistimed enough to find Labuschagne at long on instead of clearing him.
Still the Black Caps refused to yield; Santner swung lustily to deposit Zampa down the ground for six before holing out two balls later, and Neesham, a known bludgeoner of the cricket ball began to loom as the final threat.
Henry’s departure for a quickfire 9 left New Zealand needing 43 off the last three overs, with Boult and a wounded Ferguson all that remained: and Neesham, who began the home charge by depositing Starc over long on to keep the match alive.
Happy to allow Boult to retain the strike for the penultimate over to keep the scoreboard ticking, Neesham’s faith proved justified when the tailender began by depositing Hazlewood to long on, with Labuschagne taking the catch but stepping on the boundary ropes in the process to up the tension considerably.
But Neesham remained the man most likely, and with a clubbed four through mid-wicket to bring up a 33-ball half-century, the runs required dropped below 20 – and with Australia needing to bring one extra fielder into the ring due to their poor over rate.
Hazlewood, though, had tricks of his own, recovering from the onslaught to finish the over superbly; two perfectly executed yorkers meant two dots, leaving Boult on strike with 19 to win – the same amount as Carlos Brathwaite famously charged down with four sixes in the 2016 T20 World Cup final.
Boult did his first job with a hasty single to get Neesham the strike back, that would have had him run out by half a pitch had Labuschagne hit the stumps at the non-striker’s end; the pressure mounting, Starc duly cracked with the worst possible result, five wides sprayed down the leg side.
Two twos off the next left nine off the last three for Neesham to get – the exact equation, down to the wickets left, with which Ben Stokes forced a tie in the unforgettable 2019 World Cup decider.
A boundary was prevented in heroic fashion by Labuschagne’s diving stop at mid-wicket, though another two allowed Neesham back the strike with seven needed from two.
Cue flashpoint; a Starc full toss clubbed into the deep by Neesham, not timed enough to clear the ropes but hit hard enough to bring his doom; Labuschagne’s throw to Inglis saw the diving keeper break the stumps with Neesham well short.
Run out for a superb 58, Neesham’s fall left the wounded Ferguson in a Brian McKechnie-esque situation, though this time with no Trevor Chappell underarm ball to come.
Starc, though, would find his spot, a yorker jammed out to point to secure a thrilling win – surely the game of the tournament thus far.