872 runs, 13 wickets and a crazy little thing called love
Regarded as one of the greatest One Day Internationals of all-time, the match between South Africa and Australia on 12 March, 2006 at Johannesburg was my first encounter with cricket. As an 8-year-old kid born into a family of Formula 1 and cricket fans, I was in contact with sports since the very beginning. But my unparalleled devotion to F1 and Michael Schumacher was challenged for the first time on that fateful day.
I settled down on my sofa as Ricky Ponting won the toss for Australia and chose to bat first. The folks from Down Under were given the perfect start by Adam Gilchrist and Simon Katich. South Africa were in dire straits by the 15th over and were desperately missing Shaun Pollock. The first wicket stand ended after a moment of genius from Andrew Hall at mid-on. Gilchrist was replaced by Ponting. After a cautious beginning, Hall’s catch was forgotten in the ensuing carnage. The Australian skipper put on 119 with Katich off 93 balls, which turned out to be only the warm-up act. His partnership with Hussey occupied just 96 balls as the pair went ballistic on any length ball that crossed their path.
The 400 was brought up in the 48th over as Roger Telemachus bowled four no-balls in succession. Ponting’s finest hour ended as he was caught by Boeta Dippenaar after scoring 164. It was one of the most selfless performances I have ever seen. Andrew Symonds soon joined the party as Australia crossed the 430 mark. The innings ended at 434/8, the highest number of runs ever scored in an ODI at the time, with South Africa looking flabbergasted at what had just occurred.
South Africa looked down and out as they walked onto the field. It seemed as if their fate was sealed when Dippenaar fell in the second over. The uphill task had just become mission impossible. Herschelle Gibbs and Graeme Smith had other ideas, however. In less than 21 overs, the charismatic duo put on 187 runs in extraordinary fashion. A glimmer of hope presented itself as the required run-rate fell. Gibbs continued his crusade after Smith fell, and accelerated to reach his century in an effort to eclipse Ponting’s knock.
After hitting successive sixes off Symonds, he moved to 175 in the 32nd over with the hosts still only three wickets down. South Africa were suddenly the favorites to win the grueling and tense tie. Alas, Gibbs drove a ball to long-off and was caught. A wave of tension swept across the stadium as Nathan Bracken tore through the hosts’ middle order with figures of 5-67. Suddenly, 77 runs were needed from the last seven overs, which seemed like a tall order. However, Johan van der Wath hit 35 off 18 balls and Telemachus smashed 12 off 6 balls to throw the game wide open again.
The fluctuating and intriguing contest entered its last over with South Africa needing 7 runs to win with Mark Boucher and Hall out in the middle. Hall clubbed Brett Lee over mid-wicket for four as tension and anticipation thickened the air. I found myself biting my nails as I watched the two best cricketing sides in the world stretch the borderlines of sanity in their effort to get the better of each other. Hall was caught the next ball in his effort to finish with a flurry. He was replaced by Makhaya Ntini, who did the right thing by handing the strike back to Boucher with a single. 4 runs of 2 balls were required to make history. The entire cricketing world held their breath as Boucher stepped out of his crease, got to the pitch of the ball and drove it past mid-on to the boundary causing Tony Greig to exclaim, “Straight down the ground! What a victory! That is a sensational game of cricket!” I jumped out of my sofa in shock and admiration as I watched Boucher throw up his arms in celebration. South Africa celebrated their near-impossible achievement as Australia stood by and applauded in awe.
An emotionally exhausted cricketing world laid praise on the South African team as Tony Greig said, “Look, there are tears, they are crying out there! The South Africans at the Bullring today have seen the best one day international ever played.” It was indeed the best One Day International ever played. The presentation ceremony was an emotional event, with both teams not yet completely in sync with the show they had just put up. Both Gibbs and Ponting were awarded the Man of the Match awards for their unprecedented batting performances. The latter declined the award saying it belonged to his opponent. That piece of sportsmanship was what increased my respect for cricket as a sport.
An optimist in the form of Steve Waugh later said, “500 in an innings is now a possibility”, while a pessimist in the form of Barry Richards said, “There is such a propensity for hitting boundaries that bowlers have been taken out of game”. The tie was fodder for the media as tags such as “South Africa win the greatest game”, “The greatest the world has ever seen” and “The greatest match ever”, littered the cover pages of newspapers and magazines. The tie broke a number of records at the time in the form of the highest and second highest total in ODI’s, the highest ever successful run chase, and the most number of boundaries and sixes in a match.
After the presentation ceremony, my father walked in after a hard day at work just as the scorecards were being flashed on screen. I will never forget the look on his face as it dawned on him that he had just missed the best ODI that had ever been played. Such is the love for cricket across the world. That was when I felt something nudge the back of my mind. It was a feeling that I will never forget. It was a crazy little thing called love.
Of course, a year later, my love for cricket was sidelined as a new kind of obsession took the spotlight. After watching Manchester United thrash AS Roma 7-1 in the UEFA Champions League quarter-final, I fell in love with the beautiful game. But that’s a story for another time.
“I tend to think that cricket is the greatest thing that God ever created on earth – certainly greater than sex, although sex isn’t too bad either!” – Harold Pinter, English playwright.