On This Day: The greatest ODI, the ultimate heartbreak

The 1999 World Cup semi-final clash between Australia and South Africa was tied, with the Proteas getting eliminated in the most heart-breaking circumstances.

The Australian cricket team's match against South Africa was tied in the 1999 World Cup semi-final. (Image credit: Twitter)
By Siddharth vishwanathan | Jun 17, 2021 | 7 Min Read follow icon Follow Us

On June 17th, 1999, the 1483rd ODI was played. It was the 1999 World Cup semi-final clash between Australia and South Africa at Edgbaston. In the mid-90s, both Australia and South Africa vied for becoming the ultimate team in world cricket. The tussles between Australia and South Africa were titanic, with both teams sharing the spoils in a roller-coaster rivalry. After 100 overs, the outcome of the game stunned the world. It was the greatest ODI in history. To call it the greatest game ever played in cricket would not be an understatement. It resulted in heartbreak. One team got eliminated in cruel circumstances.

The 1999 World Cup semi-final clash laid the foundation for one team to dominate the world of cricket for 10 years. For both Australia and South Africa, their fortunes changed irreversibly and it all began in Edgbaston.

The backdrop to the 1999 ICC World Cup semi-final clash

Australia and South Africa had contrasting fortunes in the 1999 World Cup. Australia lost to New Zealand and Pakistan to be on the brink of elimination. They had to beat the West Indies in a must-win game. Bangladesh’s upset of Pakistan meant that Australia had to chase the target down in less than 47 overs to win. Australia achieved it but the circumstances of their win meant they had struggled.

On top of that, the Australian cricket team had a dressing room rift between Steve Waugh and Shane Warne. Two of Australia’s greatest had some issues. The discontent was there for everyone to see. The squad was also homesick, with Warne expecting the birth of his child. Steve and Mark Waugh’s grandfather was dying of cancer, with Steve’s wife also expecting.

South Africa, on the other hand, had a smooth run to the Super Six stage. They had beaten England, Sri Lanka and India convincingly but they had a stumble against Zimbabwe. No one knew it at the time. But, the loss to Zimbabwe would be crucial in the broader context of the game.

South Africa blunder a chance to knock Australia

In the Super Six stage, Australia needed to win all their three games to ensure they qualified for the semi-final. Australia knocked India out of contention and also beat Zimbabwe at Lord’s. The final Super Six match was against South Africa in Leeds. Herschelle Gibbs responded with a magnificent century and South Africa notched up 271/7.

Australia were in big trouble at 48/3. Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting stitched a solid partnership. But, the turning point of the match and the World Cup happened. Lance Klusener bowled a full delivery on the pads. Waugh whipped it to square leg and Gibbs took the catch. However, in trying to celebrate, Gibbs was not in control of the catch and he dropped it. There emerged Steve Waugh’s mythical ‘You dropped the World Cup, maite.’ But, in reality, it all boiled down to a sense of observation from Warne.

It was Warne who told the Australian players to stick around when Gibbs took the catch as he was never in control of it. Gibbs’ peculiar habit saw some catches not deemed to be under control. This is exactly what Waugh and the Australians did. They hung in after Gibbs dropped the catch and the umpires ruled Waugh not out.

Waugh hit a brilliant century and his partnership of 126 and 73 with Ponting and Michael Bevan gave Australia a five-wicket win. However, in the semi-final, they would meet again and this time, the match would be a classic.

The epic semi-final of 1999 World Cup

Australia were in deep trouble yet again against South Africa. Mark Waugh fell in the first over bowled by Shaun Pollock. Australia were reduced to 68/4 and it took the old firm of Bevan and Steve Waugh to once again rescue Australia.

Over the years, Steve Waugh had become the ultimate lynchpin of the South Africa team. His knocks at crucial times always gave Australia the upper edge. In Edgbaston, Waugh continued his classic from Leeds. Aided by the Iceman and the game’s ultimate finisher in Michael Bevan, Australia were clawing their way back. Waugh hit 56 while Bevan smashed 65 as they shared a 90-run stand.

Pollock took 5/36 and Allan Donald responded with 4/32 as Australia were bowled out for 213. In response, South Africa started off like a train with Gibbs starting brilliantly. The weight of that dropped Waugh catch probably played on his mind and he wanted to make amends. But, when Shane Warne came into the attack, the match changed.

The magic of Warne

With his first ball he bowled to Gibbs, the Edgbaston crowd witnessed magic. The ball drifted away to leg stump. Gibbs looked to work it to the leg side. But, the ball gripped and spun away sharply to clip the top of leg stump. Warne had repeated the Ball of the Century after six years. In Old Trafford, he had knocked Mike Gatting of England with an almost similar ball in the 1993 Ashes. That time, it was his first ball in England.

Six years later, on an even more volatile stage, Warne repeated the magic. The passionate celebrations highlighted Warne’s frustration. He wanted to prove a point to Waugh and he was going to do it in grand style. In the same over, he dismissed Gary Kirsten with a ball that spun in sharply as the batsman missed the slog sweep. When Hansie Cronje was given out wrongly caught, the tide had turned and it was thanks to Warne.

Jacques Kallis and Jonty Rhodes stitched a 84-run stand, with Kallis hitting a fifty. The partnership was growing and Waugh needed an urgent breakthrough. He turned to Warne and in his final over, he bowled a legbreak and Kallis got a leading edge. The catch ballooned to Waugh at point and the catch was taken. In his 10 overs, Warne got 4/29 in the ultimate match performance at that time. But, South Africa refused to go down. There was one player by the name of ‘Zulu’ who would keep the flame burning.

The brutality of Lance Klusener

In the last couple of years, Lance Klusener had developed a reputation of being the best finisher in the business. His knock against Pakistan, in which he hit a 95 mph Shoaib Akhtar out of Trent Bridge was a classic. Before the World Cup, his finishing prowess was at his peak. Now, in the semi-final, he unleashed himself.

Klusener’s brute strength kept South Africa in the game. In the 49th over bowled by Glenn McGrath, Klusener was dropped at long on by Paul Reiffel and the ball went for a six. The final equation boiled down to nine runs off six balls but only one wicket in hand. The 50th over was being bowled by Damien Fleming. The first two balls saw the brilliance and power of Klusener. Fleming stayed round the wicket and bowled a widish yorker. Klusener squeezed it out to deep point for a boundary.

The next ball, Fleming bowled a fullish length ball outside off stump. Klusener wound up and blasted the ball to wide long off. Those two shots highlighted Klusener’s woth in the South Africa side. One run was needed off four balls. Pretty simple, right? In the next couple of balls, the world would witness something spectacular.

South Africa’s ultimate tragedy

Fleming switched to over the wicket and Steve Waugh got the field up. The Aussie skipper enticed Klusener to go over the top. Fleming bowled a short of a length ball on the stumps as he gave Klusener no room. The left-hander mistimed the short ball to mid on. However, Donald was backing up too much. Darren Lehmann had an under-arm shy at the bowler’s end and he missed. Surely now South Africa would not squander the advantage. One needed off three balls.

However, the missed run-out had short-circuited Donald’s thinking. On the fourth ball, Klusener drilled a yorker length ball to mid off. Klusener ran. But, Donald, still vary of not coming out of the crease, was ball watching. Klusener reached the crease, Donald had still not ventured out. Mar Waugh fielded and back-flicked the ball to Fleming. The bowler rolled it to Adam Gilchrist the wicketkeeper.

Donald tried to run and he lost his bat. Gilchrist whipped the bails off and the match ended in a tie.

Losing on a technicality in 1999 World Cup

South Africa needed to win to go into the 1999 World Cup final against Pakistan. The tie, though, got Australia over the line. The reason – Net Run Rate. Australia’s net run rate was 0.001 better than South Africa. Talk about finer margins in cricket. It took 0.001 to separate Australia from South Africa. In reality, the loss to Zimbabwe had dented their net run-rate in a big way.

Australia put in a clinical display against Pakistan in Lord’s as they won their second World Cup title, with the first being in 1987. For South Africa, the heartbreak of Edgbaston would continue even in 2021. South Africa were knocked out in embarrassing circumstances in 2003 World Cup at home when they misread the Duckworth-Lewis calculation.

In 2007, they were knocked out by the brilliance of Australia who had dominated world cricket. The Proteas endured heartbreak against New Zealand twice in 2011 and 2015 while in 2019, they failed to reach the playoffs.

If one though New Zealand losing to boundary count against England in the 2019 ICC World Cup final at Lord’s was brutal, then the 1999 World Cup exit of South Africa was heartbreaking. In labelling this match as the greatest ODI of cricket ever played, it can be summed up as the greatest tragedy for South Africa in modern sport.

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