| Man of the Match Brad Williams celebrates one of his five victims in Pune on Monday. (Reuters)
Pune: Andrew Symonds’ lusty hitting saved the blushes for Australia as the world champions relied on their batting depth to script a thrilling two-wicket victory over New Zealand and romp into the final of the triangular series tournament.
Chasing a competitive 259 for victory, the formidable Australians managed to overhaul the target with just one ball to spare riding Symonds’ breezy 39-ball 37 after the young Michael Clarke pulled the team out of the pits in a nail-biting contest. The Aussies needed 21 runs off the last 12 balls and the Black Caps had themselves to blame for not being able to make amends for the Faridabad fiasco as they dropped two catches in the last over.
While Symonds capitalised on two dropped chances to take his side to victory, the 22-year-old Clarke gave ample display of his class with a sparkling knock of 70 and pile on the misery on their Trans-Tasman rivals for the second time in five days.
The world champions have almost assured themselves of a berth in the final by securing 18 points from four matches while India are placed second with eight points from three outings. New Zealand have just four points from four matches.
New Zealand raised hopes of avenging the Faridabad defeat by reducing the Australians to a precarious 65 for four but Clarke and the experienced Michael Bevan (50) changed the complexion of the game with a determined 108-run partnership to put the Aussies on course again.
Put into bat, New Zealand overcame a top-order batting collapse to post a healthy 258 for nine in their allotted 50 overs with Jacob Oram leading the spirited fightback with a career-best 81.
Brendon McCullum (51) and captain Stephen Fleming (40) were the other notable performers on a track which provided a great deal of assistance to the pace bowlers in the morning.
The match became very exciting in the closing stages as New Zealand not only managed to contain the run rate but also took wickets at regular intervals.
Symonds, who was dropped by Lou Vincent on one with the Australian score on 176 for five, took a single off Jacob Oram in the penultimate ball of the innings to send his teammates into a frenzy.
Spinner Daniel Vettori gave away 17 runs in the 49th over to ease the pressure on the Australians who have now won their last three matches in the tri-series.
The Australian run-chase began on a dismal note as they lost the in-from Matthew Hayden (9), Adam Gilchrist (25), Ricky Ponting (16) and Damien Martyn (10) in quick succession to slump to 65 for four by the 15th over.
But Clarke and Bevan showed no signs of nerves as they performed the salvage act with a 108-run partnership to put the world champions back on track on a pitch which became increasingly slower as the day wore on.
Clarke, promoted in the batting order, began cautiously before opening up to exhibit some glorious shots on both sides of the wicket while Bevan was quite content to keep the scoreboard moving with gentle nudges and pushes.
The right-handed Clarke steered Chris Harris to the third man boundary to notch up his third half century in one-day International and picked up Vettori for special treatment clobbering him for 11 runs in his second over.
Speedster Darryl Tuffey, who did the bulk of the damage to the Australian top-order, broke the partnership by evicting Clarke who inside-edged the ball onto his stumps. Clarke struck eight boundaries and a six during his 80-ball 70.
The Black Caps kindled their victory hopes by getting rid of Bevan a few overs later with Chris Cairns plotting his downfall for a 72-ball 50 which contained five boundaries and a six.
After Ian Harvey (19) and Andrew Bichel (9) also threw their wickets, it was left to allrounder Symonds and Brad Williams to take the Australians to the victory target in the tension-ridden last few overs.
Put in to bat, the Faridabad spectre returned to haunt New Zealand as they were reduced to 68 for five in 15 overs before a dogged fightback by Fleming (40) and career-best knocks by Oram and McCullum rendered respectability to the New Zealand total.
While Oram made an 89-ball 81 with the help of 12 fours and a six, McCullum remained unbeaten on a 47-ball 51 (6x4, 1x6).
It looked all too familiar to what happened in their previous match at Faridabad last week when New Zealand were bowled out for 97 in 34 overs by the awesome Aussies. But this time the Kiwis stemmed the rot and did well to bat out the 50 overs.
The overnight moisture and dew meant the Aussie quickies got a lot of assistance from it early on as was evident in the way the New Zealand bastmen — Chris Nevin (0), Lou Vincent (1), Scott Styris (0) and Craig McMillan (0) — followed one after the other to the pavilion.
But as the match progressed, the pitch eased up and batting was made to look easy by Fleming and Oram who put on 62 runs for the sixth wicket.
The delightful knock by McCullum capped the creditable effort by the Black Caps and ensured their bowlers would have a total to back them up against their Trans-Tasman rivals.