| Stephen Fleming at nets in Mohali on Tuesday. (AP)
Chandigarh: If the rivalry between India and Pakistan can match the Ashes in terms of interest and involvement, though for varying reasons, a Trans-Tasman clash, no doubt, comes close. As Australia and New Zealand gear up for the first semi-final of the Champions Trophy, the interest among the locals may be at its lowest ebb, but it can in no way diminish the intensity and significance their rivalry denotes.
The records, however, point to Australia’s dominance. In the last 17 games, Australia have won 14. Except for the first game of the Chappell-Hadlee Trophy in 2004 when New Zealand’s lower-order scraped through in a tight chase and the last meeting in December 2005, when they won chasing 332, it’s been the Aussies all the way.
“Like in any other sport, the clashes between the two sides have been intense… We have prevailed on most occasions in the last 17 matches. We are looking to build on our performance in the tournament and are confident of doing that,” Ricky Ponting said.
“A Tran-Tasman battle is always special… We’re excited about that. Our cricketers are measured against how they perform in this match,” was Stephen Fleming’s observation.
The Australians’ record in the meet has been dismal, and that does bring some amount of relief to Fleming’s men. In the four previous editions, the Aussies haven’t managed to reach the finals, having gone down in the semi-finals twice.
The Black Caps, though, are facing serious injury worries. Scott Styris is almost certain to miss the match while Shane Bond is nursing a hamstring injury. There’s also a concern over Kyle Mills because of niggles in the knee and groin.
“Shane picked up a hamstring twinge in the last game… We’re hopeful he’ll be alright,” informed the New Zealand captain. The fast bowler did bowl at nets during Tuesday evening’s practice, but a final decision on his availability will be taken on Wednesday morning.
Bond has been the Aussies’ biggest threat with 22 wickets in six games. More importantly, Ponting has succumbed to him on all of these occasions. The Australian captain, however, said he wasn’t concentrating on Bond alone.
“He (Bond) does the role that Brett Lee does for us… He’s got an unbelievable strike rate against Australia. But having said that, Kyle Mills has had a good time here and the conditions does suit his style of bowling. We will discuss about them and put our plans in place accordingly,” Ponting explained.
The match in nearby Mohali will be played on the same pitch that saw South Africa end Pakistan’s dreams. Both Lee and Bond will be hoping to do a Makhaya Ntini, but it’s unlikely that the wicket will retain the same life and bounce. “I don’t envisage that happening again,” Fleming said. “It’s been under the sun for the past three-four days.”
Ponting said there was “a possibility of Brad Hogg playing in place of a quick”. The “appreciable turn” in their last match against India has provoked such a thought in their minds.
Daniel Vettori’s ten overs will also prove vital if the left-arm spinner can make use of the turn and bounce. The Aussies haven’t been too comfortable against him in the past.
The New Zealand top-order, except for Fleming and the injured Styris, has failed to fire consistently and that is a cause for worry. Ponting admitted they were wary of the New Zealand lower-order who plundered 99 off the last ten overs against Pakistan.
“We’ve got to look at those guys — McCullum, Oram, Vettori... They’ve been dangerous hitters at the end. We need to come up with the right strategy, right field placements to restrict those guys at the end,” Ponting said.
Ponting believes that his side doesn’t have a “real weakness” for their opponents to exploit. If Fleming’s men can overturn this myth, it will be a shot in the arm for their confidence.
Australia (from): Shane Watson, Adam Gilchrist, Ricky Ponting, Damien Martyn, Michael Clarke, Andrew Symonds, Michael Hussey, Brett Lee, Mitchell Johnson, Nathan Bracken, Glenn McGrath, Brad Hogg.
New Zealand (from): Lou Vincent, Stephen Fleming, Nathan Astle, Peter Fulton, Hamish Marshall, Jacob Oram, Brendon McCullum, Daniel Vettori, James Franklin, Shane Bond, Kyle Mills, Mark Gillespie, Jeetan Patel.
Umpires: Steve Bucknor, Rudi Koertzen. TV: Mark Benson.
Match Referee: Mike Procter.
Match starts: 2.30 pm.