The ICC recently conducted a poll asking cricket fans what the greatest one-day cricket game of all time was. The majority voted for the famous game between Australia and South Africa at Johannesburg in March 2006.
I saw that game live, and it’s a worthy winner. However, I consider this the second best ODI game of all time.
The best ODI game of all time happens to me my favourite sports moment, and it’s the 1999 World Cup semi-final between Australia and South Africa.
I’d like to share my memories of how Australia won that World Cup, and how the history before the game made the game the most exciting moment I have ever seen in sports.
In early 1999 Australian cricket seemed as if it was about to enter a bit of a rough patch. Australia drew a frightfully close Test series to the West Indies in 1999 in which the West Indies three big guns: Lara, Walsh and Ambrose, all played out of their skin.
Questions began to arise over whether Shane Warne should be in the side. Yes the great Shane Warne (the best cricketer I’ve ever seen) was dropped in 1999 for Stuart MacGill for one Test in the Caribbean.
Questions also began to arise over whether Steve Waugh should remain ODI captain. Waugh was not as brilliant an ODI player as he was a Test player, and it had been a while since he found some form.
At this point in time, Waugh was ODI captain and Warne was vice-captain. It seemed like Australia’s senior players were on their way out.
In comparison, South Africa were the favourites to win the World Cup, with an incredibly strong side, boosted by the brilliant form of Lance Klusener. No cricketer in the ODI game ever scared me as much as Klusener did in 1999. His was a rare peak of form.
The World Cup could not have started-out worse for Australia. They were beaten by Pakistan in the opening game, when Wasim Akram tore up the Australian side. Australia followed this up with a terrible loss to New Zealand.
There was one point after Australia lost to New Zealand where it was made known to me that for Australia to win the World Cup, they’d need to win every single game for the rest of the tournament (there was an exception to this) – all their group games, all the Super Six games, the semi-final, and the final.
I vaguely remember Australia just wining an early group game against a poor cricketing country – it might have been Wales! When I saw this game I came to the conclusion Australia would be knocked-out of the World Cup early on. They were so poor it was beyond belief.
Australia were forced into a situation where they had to win their last group game with not only a win, but a strong run-rate. They scraped through thanks to some massive hitting by Tom Moody.
The Cup format worked like this.
Three teams from each group made it to the next stage – the Super Six Group. Pakistan, New Zealand and Australia qualified from their group.
Because Pakistan won their games against Australia and New Zealand, they received four points (two points per win). New Zealand received two points for their win against Australia.
Australia qualified with zero points. I came to the conclusion that Australia couldn’t, wouldn’t, make it to the top four of the Super Six group, where they could play in the semi-finals. They’d have to win all their games!
South Africa demolished every team they played except one… in what was the biggest upset I’ve ever seen in Cricket World Cup history, Zimbabwe beat South Africa. In all the other games it seemed like South Africa were by far the best team in the tournament, but they slipped-up once. It seemed to me like they took that game lightly after flogging all other sides.
The significance of this loss can’t be overstated, as I’ll demonstrate later.
Still, South Africa made it to the Super Six group with two points, after everybody expected them to qualify with four.
Things changed for Australia in the Super Six group. They began to show some form. They were vastly better than they were during the group stages.
In the Super Six stage, Australia played the three other qualifiers from the other group. They won the first two games, and their points tally rose to four.
South Africa’s tally rose to six after they won their first two games, with Lance Klusener again doing the damage. South Africa 6 – 4 Australia.
The final game of the Super Six was Australia versus South Africa with South Africa heavily favoured to win.
On a pitch that really suited the bowlers, South Africa made an impressive total of over 270. Making things worse, Australia lost early wickets.
The task seemed impossible until Steve Waugh, the man people thought shouldn’t be in the ODI side, came to the crease and played the best ODI innings of his career.
Most people are familiar with the moment, when Waugh was in the 50s, and Herchelle Gibbs dropped an easy sitter of a catch. No Waugh didn’t say he’d just lost the World Cup, he said Gibbs cost them the game.
Waugh stayed there to the end. And it remained one of the best comebacks in ODI cricket I’ve seen.
Going into the semi-final the points tally was Australia 6 – 6 South Africa. They were to play each other in the final.
Going into the semi-final I still felt South Africa would win. I felt they left Australia off the hook a little bit in the Super Six game.
The semi-final remains the best game of cricket I’ve ever seen.
Australia, once again, got off to a terrible start. When Steve Waugh started batting well I thought maybe he could save Australia again, but he went out after making a good score. Michael Bevan was left to get Australia over 210.
The alternative was clear to me: Australia gets early wickets or they lose.
Instead South Africa blasted their way to 48 off the first 12 overs. At this point South Africa needed around 166 off 38 overs with a tremendously deep batting line-up including Kirsten, Gibbs, Kallis etc.
I want to make something clear before I continue. If you watch this game, as I have many times, stats do not reveal how awesome Shane Warne was this day. I’ll explain more on that later.
Warne bowled Gibbs off his second ball with an incredible delivery. Then he bowled Gary Kirsten off the first ball of his second over. Two bowled! The next ball Hanse Cronje was caught in the slips after the ball came off his toe. It was a lucky dismissal.
But in eight deliveries, Shane Warne bowled three wickets. His figures were 3-3 off three overs.
I want to touch on the effect Warne had on this game. When he took his first wicket he started yelling, ‘C’mon C’mon.’ Prior to this it seemed as if Australia thought the game was lost. But as Warne took wicket after wicket you could begin to see the team believing again.
Furthermore, the way South Africa decided to handle Warne perplexed me. They seemed content to play defensive to Warne, and try to make runs against other bowlers, as if they decided they could win so long as they defended Warne and didn’t surrender any wickets.
After Gibbs, Kirsten and Cronje were dismissed, Daryll Cullinan came to the crease. Coming into this game, Cullinan had been dismissed by Warne eight times in 18 ODI’s against Australia. Not surprisingly, he refused to make runs off Warne. He was soon run-out by Michael Bevan.
That’s the effect Warne had on batsmen.
Warne, like Ian Botham, got wickets I think partly on reputation. He had this presence that got into batsman’s heads and made them think too hard on how to play them.
Within a few overs South Africa were in a worse situation than Australia were at 4-62.
After six overs Warne had bowled four maidens. His figures were 3-5. Yes South Africa were scoring off him by less than one run an over!
The more they blocked Warne, the more the run-rate crept-up, and the more I saw the game balancing-out.
However, Warne could only bowl 10 overs, and as he was taken off the game swung heavily back in South Africa’s favour.
Kallis made a half century that day, but as in so many ODI’s he’s played, the slowness of his innings hurt South Africa. South Africa were in a commanding position at 4-145, but required seven runs an over.
Jonty Rhodes thus hit out, and got himself out.
With figures of eight overs, four maidens, 12 runs, three wickets, and an economy rate of 1.50, the moment Warne got the ball the stadium began to buzz with excitement.
Tony Grieg on commentary noted, “This stadium has come alive again. All he’s got to do is get the ball in his hand. The announcer has announced it. And everyone will be focused on what he’s got to do now.”
You could hear the nerves of the crowd as Warne bowled to Pollock, the ball just missing the edge, and the off stump!
“Oh beautifully bowled. Yes I don’t think he knew much about that one. This is tough. This is tense.”
Slowly Australia got into the game with more wickets while the run-rate crept up. Warne dismissed Kallis later on. Gibbs, Kirsten, Cronje, Kallis… which makes for a nice resume.
Sadly, what I remember about Warne’s bowling the most that day however was how his last over went.
With figures of nine overs, 14 runs, three wickets, Warne deceived Kallis with his first delivery. The ball floated to Paul Reiffel was long off. Reiffel dropped the ball. In most instances only one run would have been taken. Instead South Africa scored three runs.
You could hear Warne over the stump-mic – “F—!”
Warne went for 15 runs in his last over, which unfortunately skewed his stats and belied his awesome impact. Shaun Pollock took the strike and hit a six and then a four.
With figures of 4-29 off 10 overs, Warne obviously played incredibly well. But what irked me about Reiffel’s dropped catch was Warne could have had figures of 4-14, instead of 4-29.
Considering this is the best ODI bowling performance I have ever seen, his figures deserved to be better.
To Warne’s credit, he got the wicket of Kallis with his second last ball, which brought Lance Klusener, the Man of the Tournament by far, to the crease.
But Warne was incredible. I’ll never forget South Africa scoring at less than a run an over against him for his first six overs. In an ODI that’s remarkable.
That’s why I hate cricket stats. They never show how truly great a player is. Warne changed the game that day.
By deciding not to make runs off Warne, South Africa allowed Australia back into game. It wasn’t just the wickets, it was the pressure, the way South Africa weren’t mentally up to facing Warne.
Watching the game I made-up my mind: if Australia dismissed Klusener they’d win. If they didn’t, South Africa would win.
Needing 38 off 30 balls, this task was nothing for Klusener.
Damien Fleming dismissed Shaun Pollock off a good Yorker, and suddenly the game was in the balance.
Then Australia were favourites, as South Africa needed 24 off 14… but then Klusener hit a four. The next delivery Klusener skied the ball, it looked like he’d be caught, but the ball fell just in front of Tom Moody. 18 off 12 required… I was picking South Africa.
Bowled him! McGrath dismissed Boucher, and South Africa need 18 off 10. Klusener remained South Africa’s last hope.
In an attempt to keep Klusener on strike, Elworthy was run-out, attempting to come back for a second run.
At this point I was convinced Australia would win. 16 runs off 8 balls with one wicket to spare… it seemed like Australia was home.
People have forgotten what happened the next delivery. McGrath bowled a full toss. Klusener whacked it down the ground. The ball was hit tremendously hard, but it was catchable. Paul Reiffel dropped it in a most peculiar way.
Replays showed the ball was going for four runs, but as the ball rebounded off Reiffel’s hand, it continued upward fox six. You’d have to see it to believe it. A ball going for four, went for six instead. I thought Australia had choked.
To me, 10 runs off seven balls was nothing if Klusener stayed on strike. One more single and South Africa need nine off the last over.
Damien Fleming was charged with bowling the last over. He’d later confess that Steve Waugh asked him to bowl two yorkers on the off side. Fleming bowled a perfect yorkers, which raced along the carpet off Klusener’s bat for four. Five runs off five balls.
Fleming repeated the dose and once again the ball was hit for four. My reaction? It’s over! South Africa need one run off four balls. They won.
“What’s that Bill Lawry just said?” I asked myself. If there’s a draw Australia go through to the final?
Here’s the amazing story behind all this.
The rules stipulated the team with the most points in the Super Six group would go through to the final. Both teams had six bonus points.
Had South Africa beaten Zimbabwe earlier in the competition in that amazing upset, they would have gone through to the final.
Secondly, had Gibbs not dropped that catch Steve Waugh popped to him, South Africa would have more bonus points. In fact Australia wouldn’t have ever made the semi-final.
Thirdly, in the situation where two teams have the same number of bonus points, the side that won any previous encounters would move on to the final. Australia won their last game against South Africa when Gibbs dropped that catch.
Australia can still win?
The next delivery I knew Australia had missed their chance. Klusener hit the ball to Darren Lehman at mid on, and Allan Donald at the non-strikers end left his crease. Lehman had a clear shot at the stumps and missed. Judging by the replay, it only just missed.
I remember seeing Lehman with his hands on his head. Australia has choked I thought. Reiffel dropped that hard catch, it brought South Africa back into the game, and now Lehman missed Australia’s last opportunity.
What happened next in the game shocked me, and I have a theory about why it happened.
Fleming bowled a Yorker. It went to mid-off this time, to Mark Waugh. Klusener ran… he just ran. There was no run there. He just ran. Allan Donald stayed at the crease, and all Damien Fleming had to do was roll the ball along the pitch to Adam Gilchrist for the win… or draw (depending on how you looked at it).
My theory on the choke was that Donald left his crease during the previous delivery, and this sowed seeds in Klusener’s mind about sneaking in a run.
The man I feared during the World Cup, unquestionably the best player of that World Cup, Lance Klusener, ran himself out at the final hurdle.
To this day I don’t think I’ve seen a game where I thought Australia would win and lose so many times. It changed with a Pollock six, or a Warne wicket, or a Klusener four.
The story was incredible. Australia, who had struggled so much during the early stages of the World Cup, who needed nine consecutive wins (which turned out to be false) to win the World Cup, are in the World Cup final.
Backed once again by Shane Warne, Australia won the World Cup final. It was a complete and comprehensive performance, but honestly the game felt flat to me. As a spectacle it didn’t compare to the semi-final.
My lasting memory of the final was of Warne dominating.
Warne I felt had an underrated ODI career. Against the West Indies in 1996 World Cup (or was it 1995?) in the semi-final, he resurrected Australia from another hopeless situation. I always felt his stats never showed how many important games he won for Australia.
As much as I’d love to see another sports moment as exciting as the World Cup semi-final of 1999, I don’t think I will in my lifetime. It combined everything – a terrific history, champion players rising to the occasion (Waugh and Warne), champion players choking under pressure.
It was everything I love about sports.
Perhaps what I remember most was the irony of such a great South African side, losing to Zimbabwe and not seeming to care about it. That loss cost them the World Cup. It was cruel for them to be eliminated on a draw under those circumstances.