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.
Kallis and Jonty Rhodes rebuilt the innings and, with around 70 to get at the start of the last 10 overs with 6 wickets in hand and the likes of Boucher, Klusener and Pollock still to bat, South Africa was still very much in the game. When Jonty fell to Reiffel, Cronje did a double-take by sending Pollock ahead of Klusener and Boucher.
The seasoned all-rounder did not disappoint though as he walloped Warne for a boundary and a sixer – just before the blond leggie accounted for the set batsman Kallis. Still with 40 to get off the last 5 overs and the big-hitting Pollock and Klusener at the crease with Boucher to follow, South Africa would have more than fancied their chances.
However the miserly duo of McGrath and Fleming had other plans in store. Fleming took out Pollock’s stumps and McGrath responded with Boucher’s. All this while Klusener was blazing away at the other end apparently in the fear of running out of partners. When Elworthy was run out by Reiffel with South Africa still short of 200 and 8 balls to go, one sensed the game was slowly slipping from their grasp.
Only for Reiffel to parry a powerful Klusener hit over the boundary ropes off the next ball. At the end of that over, South Africa needed nine from the last over with Klusener on strike. The bowler was the same one who had bowled the last over against West Indies in the semi-final three years earlier – Damien Fleming.
Australia’s plan was to bowl off-stump yorkers to the predominantly leg-side favouring Klusener but he responded with two crashing cover drives to level the scores. In a matter of 4 balls the match had turned. It was the Aussies now who were under the pump.
In response, Steve Waugh brought the ring up. Klusener could go for the big shot and, if he connected, the match was South Africa’s. They had to win in any case – a tie would send Australia to the final on a superior run rate.
The third ball was forcefully hit to Darren Lehmann and the last man Donald set off for the triumph-securing single – only to be caught like a deer in the headlights as Klusener refused the single. Lehmann took underarm aim – and missed the stumps. The stinkiest piece of underarm cricket for the Australians since Trevor Chappell. Three balls to go.
The fourth ball was almost a carbon copy of the ball before – a near perfect yorker meeting an almighty thump. Only this time Klusener chose to run.
Donald this time chose not to. He had been ball-watching and had missed Klusener’s call. When he did recall his wits, the first thing he did was to drop his bat as he set off for a long walk down the pitch. In the meantime, Mark Waugh, who had pounced onto the ball, rolled it to the bowler who rolled it back to the keeper Gilchrist. The stumps were knocked off well after Klusener had reached the other side – but well before Donald had reached this side.
Australia celebrated like they had done never before. This time, unlike the last, they capitalised on their efforts to reach the World Cup final by winning it as they thrashed Pakistan in the process. For South Africa, it was the start of the “Big Choke” – they would lose many more important matches at crucial junctures over the years to come – with or without Hansie Cronje’s efforts.
The match also marked Woolmer’s last as South Africa’s coach. Eight years later, another thrilling World Cup match between Pakistan and Ireland would be his last in this life. He ended as South Africa’s most successful ODI coach – they won 73% of their matches under his tutelage. But even Steve Waugh would not deny that his blend of science and spirit deserved more than a percentage.