Australia: From siege to surrender

Given how momentous the 1999 World Cup semifinal between Australia and South Africa was, its far-reaching consequences were, perhaps, not so surprising. Experienced live - even through television - you knew that a superb match was unfolding, that history was in the making.

Updated: June 19, 2013 13:05 IST
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When a historian writes about Australian cricket at the turn and start of the 21st century, June 17 is likely to play an important part in the telling of the story. Fourteen years ago, on June 17, Australia and South Africa played what, for my money, is the greatest One-Day International seen - the semifinal of the 1999 World Cup.

In 1999, Australia were the No.1 Test team in the world, but hadn't been quite so dominant in ODIs. The semifinal in Edgbaston was the spark that lit Australia's subsequent decade of supremacy in both forms of the game.

Before that match, Australia were a good side in ODIs, consistently counted as among the favourites in most tournaments, but they hadn't won a World Cup in the decade and hadn't won the inaugural Champions Trophy in 1998. They had reached the final of the 1996 World Cup, but in 1999, they barely scraped into the Super Sixes, and needed Steve Waugh at his ODI finest - aided by Herschelle Gibbs and the famous drop - to enter the semifinals.

If that Gibbs drop and subsequent victory took Australia back to looking like a threatening side after a flat campaign till then, the semifinal elevated them to an abode above the rest. The gap that was established at Edgbaston would only be widened continuously with victories and titles piling up faster than you could keep count.

Given how momentous the semifinal was, its far-reaching consequences were, perhaps, not so surprising. Experienced live - even through television - you knew that a superb match was unfolding, that history was in the making. But until the final ball, no one could have guessed how special it would be.

The first-innings brilliance of Shaun Pollock, Allan Donald, Steve Waugh and Michael Bevan is almost a footnote to the imposing genius of Shane Warne and Lance Klusener's descent from saviour to culprit in just one ball.

But, while nothing could beat South Africa's chase for drama, it was a drama set up by the constant tug-of-war in the first innings. From 10 for 1 in five overs, Ricky Ponting opened up, and it needed an Allan Donald double strike in the 14th over to even the scales once again.

The middle period was all about the Waugh-Bevan stand. The 90 runs they put on for the highest stand of the match were worth their weight in gold in the final analysis. In an eight-over period in the middle, they scored only six runs but, crucially, they were still there.

The 213 all out that Australia eventually mustered was thought to be a challenging total. But South Africa made light of the occasion, and their burgeoning tag of bottling it at the wrong moments, by strolling to 48 for no loss in 12 overs. Enter Warne and, in less than two overs of pure magic, the chase went from being a breeze to a challenge to a mountain.

From the moment Warne twirled his arm over, the match took on an intensity that hasn't been rivalled by an international limited-overs match since. Standing between Australia and the story of a tournament resurrected almost from ashes was first Jacques Kallis, already established as one of the world's leading batsmen, and, later, Lance Klusener, the man who could do no wrong in that World Cup.

Kallis had missed the league match that Australia won, and his return was expected to be the difference between victory and defeat. He did all that could be expected of him, scoring his side's only half-century and taking 1 for 27 in ten overs. His dismissal summed up the match. With two balls left of Warne's quota, he pushed the ball straight to cover.

Kallis caught Steve Waugh bowled Shane Warne. South Africa's bulwark, caught by the captain who had seized the day, deceived by the genius whose roars of "Come On" seemed almost audible even in faraway India.

And then came the Klusener moment of madness that set cricket history on its course - Australia's towards conquering the world, and South Africa's towards getting an albatross around their necks that they couldn't shake off.

From Edgbaston 1999 to The Oval in 2013, exactly 14 years later, the wheel has turned and how. Then, Australia were battling for a place in the semifinal. Now, they started by having a faint whiff of entering the semifinal, and then spent time trying to merely salvage a consolation win from a tournament that hasn't given them any cheer.

Coming on the back of a home series defeat against South Africa, and a 4-0 blanking against India, June 17, 2013 marked possibly Australian cricket's lowest point since that day in Edgbaston.

To complete the full circle, merely four days before Australia bowed out, South Africa entered the semifinals thanks to a tied game, beating out West Indies by net run-rate.

That Edgbaston defeat hasn't really left South Africa - it couldn't have. And as Allan Donald said a month ago, "Unless South Africa win an ICC event, it'll never go away."

Whether South Africa bookend the Champions Trophy with a triumph - and that's a big 'if' considering India's current form - to complement their win in the inaugural edition, only time will tell. Time has, however, had its say on the other team that was part of the Edgbaston semifinal, consigning Australia well and truly into mid-card status.

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