Ahmedabad, Feb 21: Holders Australia commenced their title defence with an emphatic 91-run victory over Zimbabwe, after their batsmen recovered from a slow start to post 262 for six in their World Cup Group A opener at the Sardar Patel Stadium here today.
The defending champions, who did not lose a single match on their way to titles in 2003 and 2007, thus establishing a 29-match unbeaten streak in the tournament, initially rode on half centuries from opener Shane Watson (79) and vice captain Michael Clarke (58 not out) to record a competitive total on a wicket that looked slow and offered low bounce.
The strong Australian attack, led by left-arm pacer Mitchell Johnson's four wickets, then ripped apart the heart of the Zimbabwe batting by reducing them to 44 for four in no time. The African nation could never recover from those blows.
Zimbabwe capitulated for 171 in 46.2 overs to hand the four-time winners their 26th win in head-to-head clashes in captain Ricky Ponting's record-setting 40th Cup appearance.
It was Australia's second win in as many ties against their opponents at this venue, which also extended their unbeaten streak in World Cups to 30, the run starting in the 1999 edition in England.
Zimbabwe's spinners put the shackles on the free-scoring Australian batsmen after Ponting opted to take first strike, but when their turn to bat came, the batsmen succumbed to the pace trio of Brett Lee, Shaun Tait and Mitchell Johnson.
The beginning of the Zimbabwe innings was encouraging as Brendan Taylor (16) and Charles Coventry (14) put on 22 runs in quick time, but the slide started once the latter departed top-edging Lee back to the bowler off an attempted pull shot.
Johnson sent back Tatendu Taibu (7) and Craig Ervine (0) with his pace and swing, while Tait breached Taylor's defence as he tried to play him on the leg side.
Taibu edged Johnson to the lone slip, where Watson dived to his left to bring off a low catch, while Ervine was trapped leg before by the same bowler, after a Decision Review System referral by the Aussies reversed umpire Asoka de Silva's not out decision.
It was the second time the Sri Lankan umpire was proved wrong by technology, having earlier given Australian wicketkeeper Brad Haddin not out following a leg before appeal by Zimbabwe only to have the decision reversed by the DRS.
Three quick wickets in the span of 13 balls broke the back of Zimbabwe innings, and the rest only delayed the inevitable.
Graeme Cremer scored a 51-ball 37 with the help of four fours, and Sean Williams was the second highest scorer with 28 runs.
Cremer and Prosper Utseya (24) made a belated and spirited effort to bridge the gap with an 8th wicket stand of 49, the highest for Zimbabwe.
Johnson led the way with figures of four for 19 while Tait and off-spinner Jason Krezja picked up two wickets each. There was a wicket apiece for Brett Lee and David Hussey.
Earlier Watson, continuing his good form that enabled him to score over 800 runs in the 2010-11 season, started on a cautious note before opening up to score a well-crafted 79 off 92 balls.
He was involved in two half-century stands, of 61 with fellow-opener Brad Haddin (29), and 79 off 75 balls with Ponting (28). But his dismissal in the 32nd over, followed by that of his captain almost immediately, somewhat spoilt Australia's plan.
The pair was dismissed in the space of nine balls and it was then left to Clarke, who made an unbeaten 58 in 55 balls, and the lower order batsmen to give the Australian innings a boost.
Clarke, who struck four fours, and Cameron White (22), who was dropped on 15, set about the task after the departure of Watson and Ponting. They raised 63 runs in 73 balls, including 32 during the batting powerplay, taken between the 41st and 45th over.
Their fourth-wicket stand yielded 63 runs in 73 balls.
Clarke looked at ease in his unbeaten knock as Australia finally set their rivals, to whom they have lost just once in 27 previous meetings, an asking rate of 5.26 to win the match under lights.
The Aussies, bidding for their fifth world crown and fourth in a row, started on a sedate note, with the first ten overs producing only 28 runs.
Openers Watson and Haddin seemed content to play the waiting game against the pace-spin opening duo of Chris Mpofu and Ray Price, the left arm slow bowler.
It was spin from both ends soon, when Zimbabwe skipper Elton Chigumbara replaced Mpofu, who conceded just 13 runs in his first five overs, with off spinner Prosper Utseya.
The Australian opening pair struggled to score freely against the two spinners, and Haddin was even lucky to have got a reprieve on 16. An Utseya delivery struck the bottom of the middle stump but the bails were not disturbed.
The run rate improved when Mpofu came on for his second spell, with the Australian pair hitting the medium pacer for two boundaries each. At the end of the batting powerplay, Australia were 53 without loss.
Utseya got his revenge when he trapped Haddin in a dramatic fashion. Umpire Asoka de Silva thought that's not out, but the DRS came to Zimbabwe's aid.
Watson and Ponting then went about rebuilding the innings with a stand of 79, before Clarke took centrestage. PTI