Every once in a while in the history of a sport, something happens that changes it forever. It could be the debut of a special player like Tiger Woods, whose superhuman driving abilities changed the way golf was played. Or perhaps it could be improvements in equipment, such as the introduction of graphite rackets that transformed tennis into a game dominated by top-spin.
Rule changes play their part too. Dribbling, for example, became somewhat obsolete in hockey once the offside rule was abandoned. No sport is immune from the metamorphic effects of time and cricket, in particular, has been influenced by its players, officials and fans many times through its glorious history.
It stopped being a game of polite gentlemen post the Bodyline series. It no longer comprised solely of dull defensive strokes after the advent of one-day cricket. However, the sport received its strongest nudge towards the current era of batting dominance on the 12th of March in 2006 when South Africa successfully chased 434 runs in 49.5 overs.
Let’s say that again. South Africa successfully chased 434 runs in 49.5 overs. They beat Australia, whose bowling line-up was led by Brett Lee, with a display of batting that even after 11 years seems as incredible as it is impossible.
An exhibition of batting
But before we talk about the chase, we must lay a few wreaths of deserved tribute against Australia’s innings. The Wanderers stadium in Johannesburg has always been favourable to batsmen. Its bounce is true and its oval shape tempts ball smashers with a deliciously short boundary square of the wicket.
Still, even in games played in local parks by the most fearsome neighbourhood hitters, no one expects a bowling attack to be destroyed the way Ricky Ponting demolished South Africa. In the past, he had already displayed an affinity towards the Johannesburg pitch by batting India out of the 2003 World Cup finals but this time he went a step further.
He pulled the ball across the shorter square boundaries and he drove it past the longer straight ropes like he was playing against four-year-olds. With nine sixes and 13 fours, he scored 164 runs in only 105 balls and put on his greatest exhibition of batting. Runs don’t come that freely even in book-cricket.
Every ball was dispatched with disrespect; most were treated with contempt. Following their captain’s lead, all four players in the Kangaroo top order got half centuries. Andrew Symonds played a cameo in the last few overs, helping Australia erect the tallest skyline ever in ODIs.
By the time the onslaught ended, the Proteas must have wanted to dig a hole in the pitch and crawl into it. Graeme Smith was their least expensive bowler, giving away 7.25 runs an over.
Achieving the impossible
(Video courtesy: Play Station YouTube channel)
We have to wonder about the thoughts bouncing around in Smith’s mind when he stepped out to bat 25 minutes later. Did he really believe the target was achievable? What was Herschelle Gibbs thinking when he joined his captain in the second over after Boeta Dippenaar departed?
Perhaps it doesn’t matter because their subsequent actions reveal to us more than their thoughts ever could. The two warriors put up the most magnificent second wicket stand in cricketing history. Every bowler was punished. They amassed 190 runs in the next 20 overs, giving their team a platform so stable that NASA could have launched rockets off of it.
Smith departed 10 runs short of his century but Gibbs continued, his batting as extravagant as Ponting’s earlier. It was a supreme display of strength, skill and self-confidence, helped by Nathan Bracken who let him off by dropping a sitter. However, at an individual score of 175, he was caught a few meters from the boundary after hitting two consecutive sixes.
His team was still 136 runs short and the visitors were very much in the hunt. Even though they failed to stop the boundaries, they kept getting wickets in the next hour. South Africa needed 61 runs in the last six overs, with four wickets left. Another 30 were required in the last three and one more batsman had departed.
Ponting handed the ball to Mick Lewis for the 48th over and Mark Boucher inside edged his third ball to the boundary. The universe had, perhaps, chosen a side. Two more hits to the rope brought the equation down to 13 off 12 balls.
The tension was so thick it turned the air foggy. The hosts became more cautious. They scored six runs in the penultimate over but lost their eighth wicket too. With seven to get in the last six balls, the batsmen ran a single and found the boundary off the first couple before Andrew Hall threw his wicket away.
One wicket or one hit – either could have won the match. The breadth of a hair couldn’t have separated the two teams but it was meant to be South Africa’s day. Boucher, that reliable saviour with a heart of steel, drove the ball over mid on and brought his ecstatic side home, to win the series.
A new template for batsmen
Since that match in 2006, a score of above 350 has been put together 80-odd times in ODIs as opposed to only 15 occurrences before that. The match broke many records but its biggest contribution was the self-belief it instilled in batsmen around the world. If 434 could be chased, how could any other total be beyond reach?
The efforts of Gibbs, Smith and Ponting shine on like fluorescent footprints for future batsmen. Cricket doesn’t have theoretical classrooms but the way they fashioned their innings can be the subject of multiple case studies. Their performances were ahead of their time.
Batsmen have followed their example whenever there has been a high score to chase. They wrote a template for fearless big-hitting that other players instantly put to practice, especially when the T20 format became mainstream in the next couple of years.
A total of 872 runs were scored in 99.5 overs and once this tap of runs was opened, the bowlers simply couldn’t turn it shut.
On the same ground a few years later, the highest T20 score was chased, the fastest fifty in ODIs was hit and the fastest century in ODIs was scored. But it all started that autumn evening in 2006. It was a match that showed batsmen a new utopia and brought the impossible within reach. It was really a match that changed cricket forever.