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June 13, 1999

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Wah, Waugh!

Prem Panicker

He's no Mark Taylor. In fact, early on in the South African innings today, I found myself wishing Mark Taylor were back at the helm of this Australia side. Twice on the trot McGrath found Gary Kirsten's edge, on a pitch with movement and much bounce, and both times, the absence of a third slip saw the ball going down to the fence.

But hey, he may not be everyone's favourite person, you may not like his hard-headed pragmatism, but when the chips are down and you want one man to walk out for you, nine people out of ten will pick Steve Waugh. And the tenth guy, the idjit who picks someone else, would be the one who loses the game.

If someone had gone up to Waugh senior before the Australian innings and said, hey, Steve, define leadership by example, define a captain's innings, he couldn't have done it better than with the knock he played, today, coming in with Australia reeling at 48/3 in 11.3 overs, and seeing his side past the target of 271 with two balls to spare.

Hansie Cronje won the toss in the morning, and with Nicky Boje coming in for the injured Jacques Kallis, opted to bat first. Kirsten and Gibbs took McGrath and Fleming, and on the day, McGrath -- who certainly produced a couple of great deliveries -- was not quite firing the way he had against the West Indies and against India. And that had an effect -- the attack was competent, tight, without however looking like it could blow the Proteas away.

The openers started slow, then slowly found their bearings and seemed to be batting themselves into the game when Kirsten fell, poking at a straight ball from Reiffel outside his off for Ponting to hold at point.

Cullinan and Gibbs then stitched together a partnership, and it sure wasn't a pretty sight. Gibbs was sound most of the time -- if you discount the swishes and misses around off -- and produced, every now and again, the clean hit through the line to get the runs on the tins and ease the pressure a bit. Cullinan, meanwhile, was scratchy. And when Shane Warne came on, he looked like he desperately needed someone to throw him a life jacket before he went under for the third time. Trouble with him is he doesn't try to read Warne out of the hand, nor even in the flight. Instead, he hangs around on top of his crease, waiting for the ball to pitch and then peering at it to see what it will do next. Bowling to him must have come as a welcome relief to the leg spinner, after being carted about in earlier games.

Whatever -- they did stitch together a partnership and provide a platform for the hard-hitting lower middle order, before Cullinan played a desperate sweep at Warne to depart LBW. Cronje plays spin well, but for some reason, he lost his cool here, aimed a sweep immediately thereafter, and departed the same way as his predecessor.

Enter Rhodes and with him, urgency. The guy turns things around by simply being so busy at the wicket that the tempo kind of ups itself. He pushes, he swats, he races between wickets like a startled rabbit and before you know it, the runs are coming again at a run a ball or more. Gibbs meanwhile had got over his early fidgets, and blossomed into an innings of authority, notching up his second ODI 100 in fine style.

Once Gibbs left, mishitting in a bid to further raise the run rate, Lance Klusener strolled out. And in 21 deliveries of pure mayhem, ripped the guts out of the Australian attack. Very uncomplicated player this chap -- gets himself a good grip on the bat, sets himself to hit and simply goes through the line of everything that comes his way, faster ball, slower ball, full toss, you name it, he carts it out of sight. Electrifying stuff, and his cameo, along with that of Rhodes, helped put what looked like a winning total on the board.

Australia's big vulnerability was the support bowling. With McGrath's fires dampened, there was no one to take up the slack. Warne produced a 2/33 spell, but that was thanks mainly to Cullinan's efforts. The rest lacked penetration, and this could be the fatal chink in the Aussie armour as the tournament goes into the death phase.

Australia's start couldn't have been more disastrous. Steve Elworthy, who in my previous match report I'd talked about as the unsung performer in a team of bowling superstars. Today he got the new ball and revelled in it, producing a truly hostile spell. A quicker one angled in sharply crashed through Gilchrist's defences before the batsman, who had set himself for a big hit, even spotted the fuller length. Ponting was bounced, as was Mark Waugh, and both batsmen were really under the gun from Elworthy in that spell.

Waugh's wicket was fortuitous. Ponting drove to mid on, called, then stopped in mid pitch waiting to see if the ball would go past the midwicket fielder running across. Mark Waugh, whose eyes should have been on his partner, followed the ball instead, then took off too late for the run and was yards out of his ground.

Damien Martyn, coming in for the injured Darren Lehmann, seemed to have got the measure of the attack and was playing well off the back foot when he went for a needless pull at a ball not short enough for the slot, misjudged Elworthy's pace and the bounce he gets even off a length, and wafted it straight to mid on, and it began to look like a no-contest.

Enter, left, the coolest head in the business. Steve Waugh strode out, took his time to settle down -- and to settle his partner, who had earlier got into a hooking war with the South African quicks, down as well, and then turned on a demonstration of batting under pressure that was a privilege to watch.

Two things stood out about this innings. The first was composure. At no time did Steve Waugh indicate that there was pressure on him -- not even when, at one stage, the ask climbed above the 7.5rpo mark. He chipped and nurdled the singles, raced between wickets with superb judgement, and concentrated on just getting as much as he could at every opportunity, focussing ball by ball without letting the pressure of the larger situation get to him.

And the second thing was his hitting on the on. Time and again, just when the South African bowlers appeared to have pulled it back, he would go down on one knee to pace or spin, and thwack, club the ball, cross-batted but hit with immense authority and perfect placement, over the midwicket region for fours and two huge sixes. There was, in his hitting, something so chillingly clinical that the South Africans, no mean exponents of the pressure game, wilted.

Waugh did have a let off when Herschelle Gibbs, ranking with Rhodes as the best fielder in the South African side, got a dolly of a catch to a mistimed drive at midwicket, got the ball in both hands and, as he tried to throw it up in celebration, saw it slip through his fingers.

Where the Australians won this game was in the middle. Having seen off Pollock, Donald and Elworthy, Waugh and Ponting suddenly upped the stakes by targetting Klusener. That forced Cronje to bring himself on. Waugh went after him. Left with no option, the South African captain had to turn to his fifth bowling partner, Nicky Boje. Same result.

With immaculate planning, the Australians targetted the two weak spots in the Protean attack on the day -- and the pressure was shifted right back onto the fielding side.

South Africa never recovered. Ponting, who played an outstanding innings, threw it away with a needless attempt to hoist Klusener out of the ground, but Bevan came to the wicket and with his nudges and running between wickets, helped his captain keep the target well in sight. And when he fell in the 46th, chipping to midwicket, Tom Moody came on, weathered two superb overs from Pollock and Donald, and when the chance came along, blasted the latter for a brace and then a four through the covers to bring Australia right up to the winning post.

Appropriately enough, it was Waugh who saw them past the tape with a little cut to third man for a single -- and walked out undefeated on a magnificient 120 off 110 balls.

Cronje and Boje went for 79 in ten, Klusener went for 54, and between them, they contributed almost half the Australian total. More importantly, they eased the pressure on the chasing side, and as Cronje said in his post match comments, this is one area South Africa need to address in a hurry.

With that, Zimbabwe, after its rather chancy run through the tournament thus far, finds itself out. Australia and New Zealand go through to join South Africa and Pakistan. And after Pakistan plays New Zealand on the 16th, in the first semifinal, South Africa and Australia, who today produced the best game of the competition thus far, will square off again for the right to play the final.

And after watching the Australians today, I'd back them to be the ones to go through.


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