Cricket has always been an integral part of Australia’s culture.
The 1999 World Cup. South Africa versus Australia. It couldn’t have got any better than this.
Especially so after their encounter four days prior, with Steve Waugh’s quip to Herschelle Gibbs after dropping his catch (“You just dropped the Cup mate”) still echoing in the mind of all South African players and fans.
Australia needed that match to qualify for the semis and the man of the hour was Australian skipper Steven Waugh, who stood up for them to score a century and book their spot.
A month back, not many gave the team chance to win the World Cup but, just when it was needed, the Waugh brothers, Michael Bevan and Glenn McGrath found their mojo.
Shane Warne was still not quite up to the task, but boy did he make up for that in the semis.
Five wins on the trot – the most recent a remarkable victory over tournament favourites South Africa – had given Australia a genuine chance of winning the 1999 World Cup.
In a do or die situation, for the first time South Africa looked the favourites thanks to Lance “Zulu” Kluesner. He tore apart anything that came his way over the previous month – desperately trying to erase the ‘chokers’ tag that had been haunting the national team since time immemorial.
Once they took the field, South Africa ran through Australia, with Shaun Pollock and Allan Donald picking up five and four wickets, respectively.
In response, South Africa started cautiously, reaching 0/48 within 12 overs before Shane Warne turned on his magic to get through the defence of Gibbs, Gary Kirsten, and Hansie Cronje to make it 3/53.
Jacques Kallis and Jonty Rhodes combined to take the Proteas to a position of safety, before Warne came back again to break the partnership by picking up Kallis in an awe-inspiring spell of 10-0-29-4.
If Australia thought they had game in their kitty, “Zulu” had other ideas as he smacked bowlers all over the park to bring down the equation to nine runs in one over but, more importantly, with just one wicket to spare.
Klusener smacked two consecutive boundaries to level the score, although Australia’s higher finish in the super sixes meant the Proteas needed to win outright to progress.
With two deliveries remaining, and a single needed to at last give his team a crack at one-day cricket’s pre-eminent prize, Klusener wound up for another mighty blow; the ball dribbled off a sharp bottom edge just past the bowler’s end stumps, where it was scooped up by Mark Waugh.
Klusener took off for the winning run. His batting partner, Allan Donald – understandably skittish having somehow avoided being run out after backing up too far the previous ball – responded, then opted to head back to the safety of his crease, dropping his bat in the process.
Both batsmen were by now heading in the same direction – to ignominy and disaster – as Donald was easily run out for a diamond duck.
South Africa’s reputation for choking in big games was assured for perpetuity in a single act that was part kamikaze, part comedy capers. The match was a tie, but that remains a semantic detail.
Because of earlier results, Australia was through to the final via a game still regarded as the benchmark against which all one-day cricket matches are measured.
Australia after that would go on to win World Cup by defeating Pakistan in an easy win, but South Africa continues to dream of lifting the ICC trophy. Perhaps, this was the closest they ever got until now.
Herschelle Gibbs is still asked about the dropped catch of Waugh. Until South Africa win the ICC Trophy, the chokers tag ain’t going anywhere.
Over the years, South Africa and Australia have been embroiled in many battles, controversies, and some tough cricket on the field. But this day will forever continue to be in the minds of Proteas as they look forward to shedding the chokers tag in next year’s World Cup.