Australia are closing in on a World Cup semi-final berth after a pulsating five-run win over New Zealand, who came perilously close to pulling off the biggest successful run chase in the tournament’s history.
Australia appeared in the box seat after a 175-run opening stand from newly-fit Travis Head and in-form David Warner propelled them to a formidable total of 388 in Dharamshala on Saturday.
But a second World Cup century to Rachin Ravindra (116) kept the Black Caps on track, before their last recognised batter Jimmy Neesham (58 off 39 balls) stepped up for a furious cameo.
Only called in to replace the injured Mark Chapman, Neesham was tasked with scoring 19 from the last over to seal a famous win and once again put Australia’s knockout hopes in doubt.
Mitchell Starc bowled a wide from his second delivery, which slipped past wicketkeeper Josh Inglis for four byes and reduced the target from 18 runs off five balls to only 13 from as many.
But the Australians put their bodies on the line with fine fielding in the final over and the Kiwis were unable to find the boundary.
After hitting Starc’s penultimate delivery to deep mid-wicket, Neesham was made to pay as he attempted to scramble back for a second run, run out by Inglis at the striker’s end.
Paceman Lockie Ferguson could not hit the six required off the final ball and the Australians were home.
“It was very close in the end, a hell of a game,” said Head, named player of the match.
After beginning the India-based tournament with consecutive defeats, Pat Cummins’ side have now won four games in a row and will likely make the knockout stage even if they lose one more.
They will start favourites in their three remaining group-stage games against out-of-sorts England as well as Afghanistan and Bangladesh.
In his first hit-out since breaking his hand six weeks ago, World Cup debutant Head (109) partnered with Warner (81) to punish the Kiwis for sending Australia in to bat.
Their 175-run partnership, posted at a run-rate of 9.13, was the fastest for an opening pair scoring over 150 runs in an ODI.
“We complement each other really well,” Head said.
“It’s just about making sure we react well, making sure we stay connected with each other, stay in the moment and play what’s coming towards us.”
Kiwi quick Matt Henry (1-67) unwittingly kickstarted Head’s superb innings with two back-to-back no balls in the third over.
Head smacked both free hits for six on his way to posting the fastest half-century of the tournament (50 off 25 balls) so far.
Warner, for his part, was 19 runs short of becoming the first Australian in history to notch a century in three consecutive ODIs.
Part-time off-spinner Glenn Phillips (3-37) sent both openers packing, first catching Warner from his own delivery and then bowling Head.
He ended up as pick of the bowlers for the Kiwis, who took 5-99 after the opening onslaught to prevent what could have been an astronomical score.
Just as Australia did against the Kiwi quicks, Ravindra took advantage of a wicket that offered little for the world-class Australian pace attack.
He brought his century up by belting Glenn Maxwell over deep mid-wicket for six and was given an extra life shortly thereafter, dropped by a gutted Maxwell from his own bowling.
Red-hot spinner Adam Zampa (3-74) helped ensure Ravindra was never able to form a steady partnership, though.
Zampa removed the dangerous Daryl Mitchell (54) and later soared atop the ladder for most wickets this tournament (16).
Late cameos from Cummins (37 off 14 balls) and Maxwell (41 off 24) reinvigorated the Australians with late runs that were ultimately crucial to holding the spirited Kiwis at bay.