Cricket: Big challenge looming for Marshall

By Richard Boock

Could it be that the Hamish Marshall story is about to take another twist?

That's one of the more sobering questions facing New Zealand coach John Bracewell this week as he looks to repair the early damage suffered in South Africa and remain on course for the 2007 World Cup.

Marshall's form struggle was thrown into sharp relief at Bloemfontein yesterday when New Zealand managed to squander yet another winning position on South African soil, losing the opening one-dayer by two wickets with just three balls remaining.

New Zealand made a barely adequate 249 for eight, a total South Africa were eventually able to overhaul, despite at one stage slumping to 85 for four and 115 for five.

Marshall, last season's Batsman of the Year, ground out 16 runs from 40 deliveries before being trapped in front by Jacques Kallis, continuing what's becoming an alarming form slump away from home.

Apart from his maiden tour of Pakistan in 2003, when he made soft runs in lost causes, Marshall is averaging just 23.21 outside New Zealand, his best effort coming last year at Cardiff when he made an unbeaten 75 against the West Indies.

However, weighing against that is a 3.00 average from the 2003-04 Bangladesh series and a scarcely better 6.75 average from last month's triangular tournament in Zimbabwe, when he scored 27 runs in four innings, with a top score of nine.

Marshall's first challenge will come this week if Scott Styris is declared fit for Friday's second match, as Bracewell will almost certainly need to drop a top-order batsman to accommodate his all-rounder.

Craig McMillan will be retained after top-scoring yesterday with 66 and Jacob Oram seemed to do enough as a bit player, leaving Marshall in a probable stand-off with Lou Vincent for the last spot.

Of the top-order batsmen, only Stephen Fleming, McMillan and James Marshall have shown any batting form on the abbreviated tour, increasing the pressure on Bracewell to ring the changes before it's too late.

Vincent, Nathan Astle and Hamish Marshall are the most in need of runs, particularly against a South African outfit that has strung together 15 consecutive ODI wins and is hell-bent on avenging its 2003-04 setback.

New Zealand lost their previous series in South Africa 5-0, the last two games being snatched from their grasp at the last minute by a one-man wrecking ball named Lance Klusener.

Yesterday the story was much the same, only the name had changed to Justin Kemp; the man of the match smiting a decisive 73 off 64 balls to belatedly change the game for his side.

For all that, New Zealand could blame only themselves for the result. Astle missed an early caught-and-bowled off Kemp, Jeetan Patel bungled a boundary catch off Shaun Pollock and then lost confidence, and Fleming got a finger to the shot that led to the winning runs.

Tellingly, neither skipper was happy with their team's performance; Fleming ruing the missed opportunities and Graeme Smith taking the chance to lambast the Goodyear Park pitch.

"I thought the pitch had a lot to do with us struggling to get the target," Smith told AFP.

"It was not one of the best one-day wickets and it suited them and their game plans a lot.

"It was the sort of wicket you get in New Zealand and they'll be very happy to find those sorts of pitches over here."

Fleming reckoned the total of 249 had been defendable in the conditions, but conceded his team had been beaten by the better team on the day.

"We should have sewn it up but we were just not good enough. In the last 15 overs we just couldn't get our hands on the chances that mattered," he said.

"South Africa needed something special from numbers seven and eight and today they got away with it. Kemp played wonderfully well in tough conditions."

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