Most incredible matches in World Cup history: 1 - Australia vs South Africa (1999)

The 1999 semi-final between Australia and South Africa continues to remain the greatest match in World Cup history

Which games end up as the greatest ever?

There have been numerous ties and even greater close shaves in ODI cricket. Some of them have been played between unequal opponents and others between equally formidable arch-rivals. All of them have evoked contrasting reactions – ecstasy for one and agony for another. Which one, then, becomes the game that leaves an indelible mark in the minds of cricket fans for years to come?

On 17 June, 1999, a cricket match between Australia and South Africa turned into a game that changed the course of cricket journey for the nations involved. Australia embarked on a streak of successive World Cup victories spanning across a decade and South Africa never got the better of a knockout game in World Cups to come. Unlike many tied matches, this game had a story that led to its build-up and a story that spawned out of it.

Road to the final

In the summer of 1999, when all cricketing nations headed to England - South Africa and Pakistan looked the strongest contenders. Australia, though strong, didn’t have the air of invincibility going into that edition. It was the first time that the ‘Super Sixes’ were being tested, a format where the top three teams from each group would play against each other for a spot in the semi-finals.

One of the complex rules that came with the format was that of ‘Points Carried Forward’( PCF) by each team in the Super Six stage. PCF was highest for a team which would have beaten the other two fellow group qualifiers in the league stage. Based on this rule, South Africa in Group A had carried 2 points to the Super Sixes and Australia had carried none. The sins of their poor start had followed along in this stage, so much so that even after defeating India and Zimbabwe, Australia had to win their last Super Six match to qualify for the semi-finals. The mathematics was simple now, but not the opposition. What stood between Australia and the semi-finals was a team touted to win the World Cup: South Africa.

At Headingley, Herschelle Gibbs came to the fore. His century ensured that Australia were set a stiff target of 272. The Australian chase followed a similar course like their World Cup campaign: it began terribly. The end seemed near when they found themselves at 48/3 in the 12th over of the match. An unbeaten 120 by Steve Waugh helped Australia seal the semi-final spot.

On the way to that century, when Gibbs dropped Waugh on 56 in a desperate attempt to celebrate the catch, a famous anecdote was woven. Supposedly Steve Waugh walked up to Gibbs and remarked, “You have just dropped the World Cup, mate”. Years later in his autobiography, Waugh couldn’t remember the exact words he had said. Perhaps it was a little glorified by different sources, to add an element of heroic fable to it. Whether convoluted or not, that statement has ended up as one of the most famous quotes in cricket.

Huffing and puffing, Australia had made it to the semi-finals. South Africa’s road, meanwhile, had its own share of drama. Although they had defeated India, England, Sri Lanka, New Zealand and Pakistan on the way, they had lost to Zimbabwe in the league stage. Before 17 June, it was clear that the winner of the second semi-final will play Pakistan for the World Cup trophy. On paper, South Africa looked the better team, but the Super Six loss to Australia had meant that the clash would be an intensely fought one.

The Australian innings

On the day when it mattered, individual performances stood out. Put into bat by the Proteas, the Australians lost a flurry of wickets. By the end of the 17th over, Mark Waugh, Ricky Ponting, Darren Lehmann and Adam Gilchrist were back in the pavilion. The trophy started looking a distant dream. Perhaps, some fans might have thought that Australia had carried themselves enough on those legs.

An Australian loss wouldn’t have hurt much. Mostly because they had come a long way after the league stage, and also because they would have gone down to a better team. Shaun Pollock and Allan Donald did everything right that day – troubled the batsmen, drew edges, stopped the runs and most importantly took the wickets, sharing precisely 9 scalps between them.

Jacques Kallis kept the lid from the other end, ending up with a miserly economy rate of 2.70 in his 10 overs. A valiant partnership between Steve Waugh and Michael Bevan ensured that Australia crossed the 200-run mark. When Pollock dismissed Bevan in the final over, Australia had crawled its way to 213.

The South African run-chase

In the innings break, 213 looked an easy target for the South African batting line-up to gulp. For a side having Gary Kirsten, Gibbs, Daryll Cullinan, Kallis, Hansie Cronje and Jonty Rhodes, 213 was far from intimidating. However, there were things one could not have discounted. Glenn McGrath had found form early in the World Cup against the West Indies, producing a magical spell of 5-14 that had reduced the Windies to 110 and had propelled the Australian net run rate. He had backed that up with a 3-wicket haul against the struggling Indians.

But what eventually broke the backbone of South African batting was not a spell from McGrath but one from the magical leg-spinner, Shane Warne. Having taken 12 wickets prior to the semi-finals, Warne displayed a spell which included key dismissals of Kirsten, Gibbs, Cronje and Kallis. Throughout the South African chase, the balance of the match kept see-sawing from one side to the other. Initially towards Australia, then back to South Africa until Rhodes got out, then back to Australia. By the end of the 48th over, South Africa had a slight advantage with the score reading 196-7, but things changed quickly.

18 runs required off 12 balls, with 3 wickets remaining.

48.1 McGrath to Boucher: (NO RUN). On the first ball of the 49th over, Boucher couldn’t take a run. The tension was written all over his face.

18 runs required off 11 balls, with 3 wickets remaining.

48.2 McGrath to Boucher (WICKET) In an attempt to make room, Boucher lost his middle stump. Pressure had got the better of him. The game had tilted back in Australia’s favour more strongly.

18 runs required off 10 balls, with 2 wickets remaining.

48.3 McGrath to Elworthy: (ONE RUN) Elworthy, the new batsman, managed to take a single on the next ball. The strike was with Klusener now. South Africa needed boundaries desperately.

17 runs required off 9 balls, with 2 wickets remaining.

48.4 I McGrath to Klusener: (RUN OUT) In an attempt to reduce the deficit, the batsmen had decided to push for a two but a brilliant throw from Reiffel ended up in the wicket of Elworthy. The game had shifted from South Africa’s hands and the Australian now sniffed a victory.

16 runs required off 8 balls, with 1 wicket remaining. When the 9th wicket fell, the South Africans and the final were separated by 16 runs. There were 8 balls left and South Africa’s hope was alive in the form of Lance Klusener. Giving him company was the hero of the South African bowling, Allan Donald.

48.5 Mcgrath to Klusener: (SIX) Klusener hoicked the full-toss ball to long-on for six. Paul Reiffel dropped a chance that could have ended the match and South African hopes. It looked like another twist in the tale as Steve Waugh’s pensive face flashed across the TV screens.

10 required off 7 balls, with 1 wicket remaining.

48.6 McGrath to Klusener: (ONE RUN) Klusener farmed the strike for the final over by taking a single on the leg side.

9 required off 6 balls, with 1 wicket remaining. South Africa’s scorecard read 205/9.

Damien Fleming, who had bowled the last over that threw West Indies out of the 1996 World Cup, had been given the ball. Klusener, batting on 23 off 12 balls, had the strike.

49.1 Fleming to Klusener: (FOUR) Klusener drove the ball hard to the deep cover boundary, giving the fielder absolutely no chance of stopping the ball. The margin was just 5 now.

5 required off 5 balls, with 1 wicket remaining.

49.2 Fleming to Klusener: (FOUR) Klusener drove the ball again, but this time to the right of the long-off fielder. The scores were tied. But Australia had an edge in the case of a tie on account of superior net run rate. The thumping victory over West Indies had done a world of good to their net run rate. For the first time, the past performances of the 1999 tournament were working in Australia’s favour. But the situation favoured South Africa more. 4 balls and 1 run. Klusener could have picked his ball.

1 required off 4 balls, with 1 wicket remaining.

49.3 Fleming to Klusener: (NO RUN) A half-hearted pull by Klusener went straight to Lehmann, who missed a direct run-out. Donald had been backing up too far and a direct hit would have meant curtains for South Africa.

1 required off 3 balls, with 1 wicket remaining.

49.4 Fleming to Klusener: (RUN OUT) Klusener called for a run, but Donald was too late to respond. Mark Waugh threw the ball to Fleming at the bowler’s end. Meanwhile, both batsmen were at the bowling end and Donald looked confused as he ran towards the other end having dropped his bat. Fleming threw the ball to Gilchrist, who broke the stumps down.

The South African dream had been cut short.

The snapshot of a heartbroken Donald standing among a swarm of Australian fielders is remembered to this day as the memory of the great semi-final. A game which turned many times until the very end ended up in the lap of Australia, the team that had soaked the pressure better. More than Warne, McGrath or Fleming, nerves had come in the way of the South Africans reaching the World Cup final. The loss had left the Proteas stunned. All this hard work, only to end it like this.

The tag of ‘choking’ has haunted the South Africans ever since, eluding them of a single knockout victory in World Cups. The Australian team, which came from behind, went from strength to strength from there on. It turned into a stronger and more formidable squad under the leadership of Ricky Ponting, winning the next two World Cups without losing a single game.

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Edited by Staff Editor
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