Auckland, New Zealand: New Zealand scraped home in a thrilling finish against Australia in Saturday's clash of the Cricket World Cup co-hosts, with Kane Williamson hitting a six to give the Black Caps a one-wicket win after Australia had threatened a remarkable victory.
Having bowled out Australia for just 151, New Zealand looked set to inflict a humiliating defeat on its neighbor when it cruised to 78-1 in the eighth over, but some superb bowling by Mitchell Starc (6-28) breathed new life into the contest.
Williamson ended it when he clubbed a six from the first ball of the 24th over, delighting a packed Eden Park and leaving New Zealand unbeaten at the top of Pool A.
Starc's magnificent bowling effort — he took three wickets for four runs from three overs in his final spell — meant Australia left the match with its pride and confidence intact just when both looked shot after a powerful performance by New Zealand's bowlers and batting top order.
The result did, though, set up New Zealand to win the pool and to take an easier path than Australia through the quarterfinals.
Starc claimed his wickets in two bursts, twice plunging New Zealand's innings into chaos. He first removed Black Caps skipper McCullum, who made a typically dashing 50 off 21 balls with seven fours and three sixes.
That wicket precipitated a mini-collapse of three wickets in five balls around the innings break, reducing the hosts from 78-1 to 78-4.
After McCullum, Starc removed Ross Taylor (1) four balls later and bowled Grant Elliott (0) with the first ball after the resumption.
Williamson and Corey Anderson (26) restored the innings in a fighting 50-run partnership for the fifth wicket. When Mitchell Johnson came on for Starc in the 15th over, Anderson hit him for two fours and a six from his first three balls and New Zealand was back on top. Johnson conceded 68 runs from six overs.
When Anderson went for 26, New Zealand was still on course for an easy victory, needing 20 runs with five wickets in hand, but Starc returned to torment the lower order and turn what should have been a comfortable finish into a thoroughly nerve-wracking climax.
He removed Luke Ronchi, Adam Milne and Tim Southee with some venomous deliveries, bringing in No. 11 Trent Boult — who earlier took a career-best 5-27 in a superb bowling display — with six runs required and two balls left in Starc's over.
A block and a leave saw off the immediate threat and Williamson — not wanting to risk getting Boult back on strike — stepped away from the stumps when Pat Cummins bowled the first ball of the 24th over, and struck the ball over the short long-on boundary for six and the winning runs.
"The Australians bowled outstandingly and made it very difficult for us," Williamson said. "Starc was superb and swung the ball throughout the innings.
"In tournament sport it doesn't really matter how you get across the line as long as you do it and it was a bit of a scrap today but nice to get the win."
While both teams tried to minimize the importance of Saturday's match, putting it in context as a pool match and nothing more, there was a psychological advantage at stake, given the two teams could well meet in the final.
"We backed ourselves all the way in but we fell one wicket short," returning Australia skipper Michael Clarke said. "Full credit to the Kiwis, they played outstandingly.
"They've been playing great cricket for a while now and we were not up to the challenge today."
What had promised to be the game of the tournament looked like a mismatch when New Zealand's bowlers ran through Australia's order after the visitors made a promising start with 68 runs off the first ten overs.
Trent Boult, in the destructive spell that changed the Australia innings, claimed five wickets in the space of 16 balls, bowling three of his victims — Glenn Maxwell for 1, Mitchell Marsh and Starc for ducks — with superb deliveries which were full, fast and which swung late.
Johnson and returning Australia captain Michael Clarke (12) — who was playing only his third ODI in the last 12 months and his first since hamstring surgery nine weeks ago — also fell to Boult, caught by Williamson.
Veteran spinner Daniel Vettori, who took 2-41 from 10 overs, was equally instrumental in Australia's decline, first arresting its aggressive start then claiming the wickets of Shane Watson (23) and Steve Smith (4) to provoke the collapse and keep it in motion.
The 36-year-old Vettori was introduced in only the seventh over as McCullum sought to apply the brakes to Australia's run-rate which had approached 10 runs per over through the first five overs.
The visitors lost eight wickets from 26 runs, and only a 45-run stand for the last wicket prevented Australia recording its lowest-ever World Cup total, and Brad Haddin's 43 ultimately proved enough to give the Aussies a shot at victory.