Worrying signs for Aussies in Champions Trophy washout
TWO days into the English summer Australia's Champions Trophy campaign was put on a knife's edge by rain that been absent from Birmingham for months, but arrived this week.
The opening clash against New Zealand was washed out after two earlier rain delays stalled proceedings and both teams could walk away with only a single point in what Aussie skipper Steve Smith called a "cut throat" tournament.
Now Australia has to win both final pool games, against Bangladesh at the Oval on Monday then England back at Edgbaston next Saturday, to guarantee progression to the knockout phase of the tournament and avoid an ugly early exit.
A downpour right on the innings break, after the Aussies bowled New Zealand out for 291 in 45 overs thanks to a career-best haul of 6-52 from quick Josh Hazlewood, cost an hour of play and the reset score had Steve Smith's men on the immediate back foot.
Australia was told to chase down 235 in just 33 overs, a run rate of more than seven an over from the start.
Openers Dave Warner and Aaron Finch only got five off the first over, and managed only two boundaries in the first 30 balls as the chase started slowly.
Then Warner was out in the sixth over, snicking a wild swing at Trent Boult, Finch went four balls later, after failing to middle a thing and a couple of air swings.
Winless in an ODI at Edgbaston since 1993, with four of the past eight matches in Birmingham washed out, Australia was well behind par on the Duckworth Lewis system by the end of the eighth over.
Then heavy rain forced the players off, just after Moises Henriques (18) went out at the end of the ninth over, and with 20 needed to be completed to get a result, the clock then became an issue.
Play could not continue beyond 7:34pm local time, but it didn't matter as the downpour continued, the covers remained on, and finally officials called the match done.
The Aussies are now headed to London and a clash with Bangladesh in which a loss would leave the reigning World Cup champions dead in the water.
Things looked troubling for the Aussies early when New Zealand opener Luke Ronchi, who once made a 22-ball ODI 50 for Australia, whacked Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins to all parts.
Along with Kiwi skipper Kane Williamson, who scored a masterful 100 off just 97 balls, Ronchi went on the offensive whacking three sixes in 77-run stand with his captain.
The Black Caps raced to 134 off just 20 overs, before John Hastings secured the prized wicket of Ronchi, and the Aussies started to pull back the Kiwi run rate.
New Zealand didn't get to 200 until the 33rd over thanks to Hastings, Travis Head and Moises Henriques, who got the selection nod ahead of slugger Chris Lynn.
Cummins, too, bounced back after going for 52 off his first five overs, and in his second and third spells joined in the slowdown party.
He conceded just 15 runs in his final four overs, and took a wicket, an effort more reflective of his ability.
Hazlewood went for 20 in his opening two overs but after Australia turned the screws on New Zealand through the middle of their innings, the quick capitalised when the Black Caps pushed for late runs.
He had three wickets going in to what proved to be the final over of the innings, found himself on a hat trick, before taking the final scalp of the innings, his sixth.
New Zealand had lost 7-37 in the final 5.5 overs, after Williamson was run out, and collapsed to what seemed a manageable total in the 46 overs Australia would have had, after the first rain delay reduced the match.
It was a strong showing from the Aussie attack, but there was plenty of rustiness from the bowlers, on a wicket suited to slogging.
But with the tournament looming as one for the batsmen, some tightening of the attack at the top of the innings will be necessary if coach Darren Lehmann wants his team to avoid a repeat of Australia's 2013 Champions Trophy campaign, which ended in the group stages.
That goes for Mitchell Starc.
In his first international outing since he returned home early from India in March with a foot injury, the dynamic left-armer, who averages fewer than 20 runs per wicket in his ODI career, looked threatening but meandered through his final overs and went wicketless.