Mitchell Marsh almost single-handedly took Australia into the tri-series final, first by plundering 86 off 51 balls, including 21 off a single Dale Steyn over, and then with two wickets to dent South Africa’s chase. The bonus-point victory has guaranteed Australia spot in Saturday’s showdown but put South Africa’s in some danger. If they lose to Zimbabwe by a massive margin, so much so that the hosts gain a bonus point and improve the net run-rate, South Africa could be on an early flight home.
Marsh’s blitz injected life into an Australian innings that was solid at the start but became stuck through the middle periods against a stranglehold of spin. He shared in a 71-run stand with Brad Haddin for the sixth wicket, which included taking 60 runs off five overs from the 44th over, as South Africa struggled for a death-bowling option. Those runs ultimately proved the difference between the two sides on a scruffy, sluggish surface on which run-scoring was laboured.
Less than a week after they gunned down a target of 328 against Australia, South Africa stumbled in search of a significantly smaller target. Only Faf du Plessis had some measure of what was required and only he managed a score more than 24. Du Plessis’ second ODI century came six days after his first, but in much more trying circumstances because he lacked support.
Mitchell’s Marsh’s 21-run plunder off Dale Steyn’s final over and unbeaten 86 off 51 balls was the difference between what Australia would regard as a defendable score and a sub-par one. Marsh, who was batting at No.6, shared in a 71-run stand with Brad Haddin for the sixth wicket, which included taking 60 runs off five overs to turn Australia’s solid start into something substantial after they found themselves stuck in the middle period of their innings.
Spin was responsible for the stranglehold on another slow Harare surface. South Africa’s two specialist spinners, Imran Tahir and Aaron Phangiso gave away 81 runs in their 20 overs and took three wickets to tie Australia down after Phillip Hughes and Steven Smith’s second-wicket stand of 85 set them up well.
Australia started positively when Hughes latched onto a Dale Steyn short ball and then flayed him through gully for the first two boundaries of the innings but were kept quiet by spin on the other end. JP Duminy shared the new ball ahead of Morne Morkel, who was returning from a shoulder injury, to underline the importance of taking pace off the ball on this pitch.
By the time Morkel and Ryan McLaren were introduced, Australia had switched to watchful mode and both bowlers were able to contain with tight lines. When McLaren bowled one fuller and wider, Aaron Finch saw an opportunity to break the shackles but holed out instead.
Smith was sent in at No.3 in Michael Clarke’s absence and took over as the aggressor, albeit briefly. He clipped Morkel off his pads and drove McLaren through the covers to keep Australia moving but maintained caution against Imran Tahir. Hughes had struggled against spin in Australia’s previous match and employed the same patient approach, which was limited to rotating strike bar an edge that went for four.
In tandem, Tahir and Aaron Phangiso conceded just one boundary in a six-over period and Morkel continued the stranglehold with Phangiso for the next five overs. They could not stop Hughes getting to his half-century off 51 balls, thanks largely to a sprightly start and judicious running later on.
As Hughes grew more comfortable against spin, AB de Villiers brought back Dale Steyn but he did not make the intended breakthrough. Instead it was at the other end where Smith had grown tired of waiting where it came. Smith looked to crave Tahir through the offside but his booming drive only yielded an edge for Quinton de Kock to collect.
Glenn Maxwell’s arrival hastened Australia’s calling for the Powerplay, which they did at the start of the 31st over but Maxwell did not last long enough to capitalise on it. He top edged Steyn at the end of the first over of fielding restrictions. It was only in Steyn’s next over that Australia began to show intent with a couple of Hughes’ fours to put him in touching distance of a century.
He was in a hurry to get there and took on Phangiso as the Powerplay came to an end only to find the long-on fielder. Australia managed just 20 runs in the five-over period and lost their two set batsmen to turn the last 15 overs more crucial than they may have liked.
The only option was to take on the spinners and George Bailey tried to. He took boundaries off both Phangiso and Tahir and smacked Duminy for six but when he charged Phangiso one time too many he was found short of his crease to allow de Kock his first international stumping.
Mitchell Marsh had been little more than a spectator until then but the onus was on him to push Australia over 250 and he accepted it. After taking advantage of delivery from Morkel that was overpitched, seeing off Tahir and testing the waters with a drive off Steyn, Marsh unleashed himself. He took a Tahir delivery on the full and sent back over his head for six and then did the same to Steyn. Three times. That had never been done before.
In the same over, Marsh’s own score went from 29 to 50, off just 37 balls, which forced de Villiers to look elsewhere for a death bowler. McLaren missed the yorker on too many occasions and allowed Marsh to motor on and even Haddin’s dismissal did not stop him. Successive sixes off McLaren’s final over inched Australia closer to 300 and even though they did not get there, they will be satisfied they’ve given South Africa a tough task and themselves an opportunity to book their place in Saturday’s final.
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