Fleming century spells disaster for South Africa

South Africa 306-6 New Zealand 229-1 New Zealand win by 9 wkts (D/L method)

The World Cup, which has been dogged by politics, drugs scandals and race rows, looks likely to suffer its bitterest blow. South Africa, the hosts and second favourites, are on the verge of being eliminated at the first stage.

Defeat, crushing defeat at that, by New Zealand here yesterday means they are at the very least reliant on other teams doing them favours to stay alive. This was not in the script devised by the man who has masterminded this tournament and led South African cricket for 30 years, Dr Ali Bacher.

From the moment the tournament was awarded to the country the plan went something like this. South Africa would run the biggest and best World Cup of all, ensuring a genuine festival of sport whose climax would be a final at the Wanderers in Johannesburg featuring the host nation.

The first part of the strategy may well yet come true but the second is now little more than a pipe dream. South Africa scored 306 for 6 in their 50 overs yesterday but they were beaten by nine wickets under the Duckworth-Lewis method as New Zealand made 229 for 1. It was only the Kiwi's second victory over South Africa in their last 16 meetings.

The artificiality of the scoreline should not persuade anybody to think that there was anything remotely false about the result. The Kiwis, desperate to win since they have confirmed their refusal to play in Kenya that will cost them four points unless the International Cricket Council moves their match, simply mustered their forces and played out of their skins.

They were indebted largely to their captain, Stephen Fleming, a notable leader of men for whom the word underachiever could have been minted. Fleming has simply not made the runs that a man of his talent should have done.

But yesterday he was magisterial. The Wanderers is said to be the most intimidating ground in the world because of the fierce partisanship of its paying customers who never smile at the opposition when a snarl will do. Fleming made it seem as though he was playing in his back garden.

This was an innings of supreme timing in every sense. It had been five years and four days and 104 innings since Fleming had made his last one-day international hundred. He knew the fourth had been much too long in coming. But what a stage to choose. He struck 19 fours from 134 balls, many of them placed through the wide midwicket arc with the delicacy of a manicurist.

"It's a great honour to lead your country but as a player to win the game is much more exciting because that earns respect," he said. "You feel better about yourself and you make better decisions when you're confident."

Fleming's innings superseded the game's initial century by Herschelle Gibbs who flayed the Kiwi attack much as he liked for 143 from 141 balls. There is something Australian in the assertive way Gibbs goes about his work.

At the interval, as Fleming conceded, the game looked up. Flight schedules were probably being closely examined. But Fleming and Craig McMillan gave New Zealand a solid start and Nathan Astle sustained the momentum. Fleming was dropped once when he was 53, an elementary chance to the wicketkeeper Mark Boucher who made an ugly snatch at it. It may be remembered that a careless drop by Gibbs of Steve Waugh cost South Africa dear in the 1999 World Cup.

The rain came, 11 overs were lost and New Zealand charged their way to their reduced target of 227 with 11 balls left. The forlorn hosts now have to beat Sri Lanka and trust West Indies do likewise to qualify. Shaun Pollock, their captain, could not have been more gracious in defeat but he knew that a nation's expectations had been dashed.

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