17th June 1999, Edgbaston – Australia and South Africa had played out a nerve-jangling Super Six match where Steve Waugh had overcome his own poor form and Herschelle Gibbs’ palms to take Australia to the semi- final here and on this date – against the same opposition. At this point of time South Africa had yet to transcend into full-time chokers – so far they had only been unravelled by rain and the genius of Brian Lara rather than their own demons.
Australia, on the other hand, was no stranger to “Great Escape” semi-final entries. Three years earlier, Shane Warne and the West Indian batsmen had provided the Aussies a chance to make it to the last hurdle where they were thwarted by the effervescent Sri Lankans. This time also Warne was present – but doubts had surfaced over his match-winning ability by now.
In the five months leading up to this match, Warne had gone through a shoulder injury, an unceremonious exit from the Test team, a missed opportunity to witness the birth of his son and a retirement discussion with Steve Waugh at Hyde Park. Waugh had redeemed his own flailing fortunes in the previous match; Warne had but a few opportunities left.
South Africa won the toss and put Australia into bat. Within five balls the seaming conditions and Shaun Pollock had claimed their first victim – the “Forgotten Waugh” (Mark) made a forgettable duck nicking one into the safe gloves of the other Mark (Boucher).
Adam Gilchrist and Ricky Ponting stabilised the innings as they took the score past 50. The momentary joy the partnership produced was clinically erased by a double strike from the White Lightning and an inspired effort from the injured Kallis who combined to leave Australia reeling at 68 for 4 after 17 overs.
But they still had to contend with the man of the last match – Waugh senior – and that all-time crisis saviour Michael Bevan. Bevan had come into bat in similar circumstances and conditions during the ’96 semi-final in Mohali and he and Waugh hit fluent half-centuries as they powered Australia past the 150 mark.
It was again at this point that Shaun Pollock started finding the edges. Steve Waugh went first – caught behind in a fashion similar to that of his twin brother’s dismissal. Moody found himself plumb in front of the stumps to another of Pollock’s delivers. Australia had slipped to 158 for 6.
Bevan and Warne toiled to take the score past 200 but both were to fall to Pollock on both sides of another double burst from Donald to outgun Reiffel and Fleming. Australia failed to bat out their overs as they finished on a face-saving yet insufficient score of 213.
In response, the South African openers chugged off as if there was no devil in the pitch or the conditions. McGrath, Fleming and Reiffel were not even half as dangerous as Pollock and Donald had been in the first innings. At 43 for 0, the Edgbaston crowd were looking at the possibility of an early lunch.
It was then that the showman decided to turn up in all his glory. His first Ashes delivery had been the “Ball of the Century” fizzing past a hapless Mike Gatting’s pads on its way to off-stump; his eighth ball here was a near-repeat and this time it was Herschelle Gibbs – the man who had started it all by “dropping the World Cup”.
Five deliveries later, Gary Kirsten swept and missed at one which targeted his off-stump. Two balls later, a bat-less flick to first slip sent Hansie Cronje walking back to the pavilion. Bevan then displayed the other suit in his armour as he ended Daryll Cullinan’s laboured stay at the crease by running him out. From 48 for no loss, South Africa had gone to 68 for 4.