In cricket, we often witness the unpredictable; the exciting; the tension-ridden; and the drama-charged. But it is doubtful that we have ever seen a match quite like the World Cup semi-final contested between Australia and South Africa at Edgbaston, dated June 17, 1999 – a fixture that ended in a tie (yes, a tie – the first ever in the Cup!) and saw Australia progress, by virtue of the fact they had finished higher on the tournament’s Super Six table than their opponents, to the Final in the most staggering of climaxes.
Not that it is altogether possible to describe in mere words how this result came about, the match ended two balls from the scheduled finish as the South Africans bravely, but rather unsuccessfully, attempted to search for the single that would have clinched their country a berth in an all-so-elusive World Cup Final. Having already brought his team back to within touching distance of victory from what appeared to have been the point of almost no return, big-hitter Lance Klusener pulled a Damien Fleming ball in ungainly fashion back down the wicket, and called his partner, number eleven Allan Donald, through for a frenzied run. But, in a mix-up Donald somehow remained almost rooted to a spot a pace out of his crease and then dropped his bat as Klusener ran toward him all the while and ultimately joined him at the bowler’s end. Simultaneously, Mark Waugh fielded the ball running across from a position at mid off; relayed the ball to Fleming, who in turn threw it along the ground to wicketkeeper Adam Gilchrist as Donald eventually began running in a despairing effort but one that was made far too late to avert disaster.
Lest the events which led up to the astounding conclusion be forgotten amid the scenes of chaos, pandemonium, joy and despair, it should be said that this was a great day’s cricket throughout. In many ways, this was also a match which exemplified the notion that players and teams can react to supreme pressure in entirely different ways. Moreover, it illustrated perfectly that some can fold under its burdensome weight; others can remain unaffected; and that there are a small number who have the rare capacity to use it as a catalyst to raise the level of their performance to dizzying heights. Indeed, we saw the full range of those responses, but it will inevitably be one which fits the latter description in the most sublime of senses that will almost certainly serve as the most enduring memory of what proved to be an excellent day’s cricket.
Producing a performance which was reminiscent of his deeds against West Indies at exactly the same stage of the 1996 World Cup, leg spinning wizard Shane Warne was clearly the Australian hero. Prior to his introduction into the attack in the eleventh over of the South Africans’ pursuit of the total of 213 compiled by the Australians in the morning, this fixture was heading inexorably the Proteas’ way but he transformed the situation completely. It was a simply brilliant effort from the Victorian, as he teased and tormented all of his opponents with easily his most memorable exhibition. Such was Warne’s impact on this fixture that he even seemed to transform the mindset of his previously flagging teammates with his early burst – the Australians suddenly anew and almost awakened as they capitalized on their leg spinner’s genius. With some notable exceptions, they bowled and fielded with great composure – Michael Bevan, especially, outstanding in the deep throughout.
Earlier in the day, destructive bursts at either end of the Australian innings from Shaun Pollock and from Donald appeared to have given the South Africans a decisive early edge. Although they were resisted for a considerable period by a belligerent partnership of 90 runs for the fifth wicket between the formidable pairing of Bevan (65) and Skipper Steve Waugh (56). Pollock was the most effective among them, clearly turning in his most convincing exhibition of the Cup to finish with 5/36. Typically, Donald also bowled excellently, and troubled all of the batsmen with his destructive speed and control on a helpful surface, returning figures of 4/32 from his ten.
Befitting its status as one of the three most important matches in this cricketing extravaganza, this was, then, a truly extraordinary and nail biting contest which left everyone at the edge of their seats until all but the very end. Whilst the pain of this ‘loss’ stayed with South Africans for a long time, and it is here they got tagged as the “chokers”, however, it needs to be remembered that the South Africans played with tremendous heart until the very cessation of their tournament and undoubtedly proved themselves one of the three great teams in contemporary one-day international cricket. In the end, one team had to end on the wrong side of the ledger and victory was simply not to be theirs on a day when they were pitted against eleven ruthlessly determined men whose collective sense of assurance grew as steadily during the day as it had done throughout the latter stages of this tournament more generally.
-Nikhil Sharad Jadhav