The Greatest Ever Match
It happened one bright sunny afternoon on the 17th of June, 1999. The place was Edgbaston, and the occassion: World Cup Semifinals. Two of the best teams in the competition were battling it out in the sun. Australia vs South Africa, it was worth anyone’s money. Another blazing innings by Lance Klusener meant South Africa, with one wicket in hand, needed a single off the last four balls of the match to win. But Allan Donald was run out after responding too late to Klusener’s call for a risky run. In spite of the tie, Australia were through to the finals, whereas South Africa were left mourning. “Former SA allrounder Mike Procter looked like he had just seen a ghost,” the Star reported. Pale and drawn, he ambled towards the exit at Edgbaston with shoulders hunched, shaking his head in disbelief. “Not like that. Not on a run out. Caught or bowled, sure, but not on a run out,” he was quoted as saying. Australia went on to win the World Cup in a one-sided final against Pakistan. South Africa, on the other hand, were labeled “chokers”.
For a long long time (almost 7 years to be precise), this match was considered to be THE definitive one day match of all time. Australia had gone from strength to strength, whereas South Africa had sunk deeper and deeper after the nightmare at Edgbaston. Australia went on to win the next World Cup as well, this time under Ricky Ponting, almost bullying their opponents into submission. South Africa, on the other hand were first rocked by match-fixing controversies, and then got caught into a trap of poor results and bad luck, the most notable being the World Cup 2003 elimination against Sri Lanka (a tie, once again!), and the Champions Trophy 2002 Semi Final loss to India. All this did no good but to enhance the Proteas’ notorious reputation of “chokers”.
But all this was set to change on the 12th of March, 2006. Once again it was a big occassion: the 5th and final match of the series, tied 2-2, and of course, it was Australia vs. South Africa. In a match which saw batting flamboyance never seen before in the history of the game, and a ridiculously perfect pitch for batting, scores of records went for a toss. Australia eventually put up a mammoth score of 434 – the first time any team had crossed the elusive figure of 400, courtesy yet another bullying knock by Ricky Ponting, bringing back memories of 2003 World Cup final. Former Australian cricketer Dean Jones said after Australian innings, “This knock of 434 is greatest in the ODIs and might not be conquered ever. The way Australia is murdering their opponents, makes them invincible.”
But unfortunately for Jones and the Australian team, a different script was to be written that day at the Wanderers. It was a powerful batting display by Herchelle Gibbs, complemented by the inspirational captain Graeme Smith, which put the skids under the Aussies in the second innings. It was Gibbs who took centre stage. The man who, memorably, dropped the World Cup at Headingley in that 1999 campaign has redeemed himself a hundred times over in the intervening years. But this was to be his crowning glory. Gibbs made a swashbuckling 175, to guide South Africa to inches from victory. Interestingly, Nathan Bracken dropped Gibbs when he was just starting to look dangerous. A costly miss. One wonders if Gibbs had said the same thing to Bracken which Waugh had said to him seven years ago.
After Gibbs departed, the Aussies heaved a sigh of relief. They thought that the Proteas did not have enough firepower left in them to beat them. But they were wrong. Once again it was the gritty Mark Boucher who led the way, with contributions from Johan Van Der Wath and Roger Telemachus to take the Proteas to withing sniffing distance of victory.
But there still was a final twist to the tale. When two runs were required for victory, Andrew Hall spooned a catch in the in-field off Brett Lee’s bowling, and out came the no. 11, Makhaya Ntini. All those years of agony and desperation came gushing back to memory. Will South Africa choke it up again this time, being so close to victory? Would this be another Edgbaston, another Colombo? Smith must have been a relieved man when Ntini somehow managed to pinch a single, to tie the scores. That must have been the most crucial single taken in the history of the game. That left 1 more run to win off two balls, and the veteran Mark Boucher on strike.
And Tony Greig squeaked, “And that’s over the top for four, its all over, and South Africa have won the greatest match ever……………”.