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June 17, 1999

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South Africa runs itself out of World Cup

Prem Panicker

One over to go. Nine runs to get. Damien Fleming to bowl. At the batting crease, Lance Klusener, the destroyer par excellence of the tournament.

The first ball, bowled round the wicket, angled in to off on a yorker length, is smashed through cover. Four, leaving the field standing. Five off five needed.

The second ball, angled in even finer, seemingly leaving no room for the hit, is powered -- an incredible cricket shot that -- through mid off. Again, a fielder is in range. Again, he is a helpless spectator as the ball screams through the turf. One run needed off four balls.

Australian skipper Steve Waugh puts in two slips. Brings the rest of his men inside the circle. The bowler goes over the wicket, slants it across Klusener. Who clubs. Finds mid on. Donald, the non-striker, is backing a long way up -- all Lehmann had to do was hit from almost handshaking distance. He misses -- a miss that seemed to have cost Australia its final berth. One off three.

Klusener clubs again. Straight to mid off. And sets off for the single. I've been sitting here, watching this replay about a dozen times, trying to understand the sheer madness of it all. When you'd already made 31 off 15 balls, wouldn't you back yourself to clear that tight-packed field at least once in three balls. Why run that single? Having decided to run it, why just put your head down and run? A glance up would have showed you that the non-striker had his back to you, was looking at the ball, and in no position to finish the run. Wasn't it possible to retrace? To get back to the crease and try again?

No. Klusener, the man who had backed nerve, eye and skill to bat South Africa out of one tight situation after another, finally, fatally, lost his nerve when he needed it most, and just kept running. By the time Donald realised his partner was on him, it was a lifetime too late -- the throw had been relayed to the keeper, the last wicket had fallen with the score tied, and Australia had made it to the final on the basis of having defeated South Africa in the Super Six encounter.

In the battle of two equals, it was all about which team could hold its nerve better. Steve Waugh had, before the game, upped the ante by calling South Africa chokers on the big stage. Today, the Proteas proved him right -- and they go with the knowledge that it might be a while before they come this close again.

Hansie Cronje won the toss and inserted. It was, as we thought while doing commentary, an error -- the Proteas apparently were suffering the hangover of the previous encounter, when Steve Waugh had stolen the game out from under their noses. But South Africa's strength was in its bowling and fielding -- a failure to back those two strengths indicated that the nerves were stretched taut, and that always proves fatal when the chips are down.

Australia began disastrously. Pollock, who has been having an ordinary tournament, came good when he most needed to. And produced a ball of top pace, that kicked, seamed in, bent Mark Waugh back at an impossible angle as he tried to evade, flicked the glove and flew through to Boucher.

With Kallis playing at less than 100 per cent fitness levels, Elworthy took the new ball again, and entered into a bouncer war with Ricky Ponting. A screaming hook over midwicket, a flat batted pull in the same region, finished off that encounter with the batsman way ahead on points, and with Adam Gilchrist playing with a rarely seen straight bat, Australia looked to be recovering quite nicely -- when Ponting threw it all away. The first ball of Donald's spell was an absolute nothing ball, under top pace, wide of off, short. Every sin in the bowler's book, in fact -- and what must an overeager Ponting do but smack it straight to cover. Five balls later, Donald produced an authentic beauty that stood up on Darren Lehmann, seamed just enough to take the edge, and gave Boucher an easy take. Two twin strikes, and Australia were back under the gun.

Steve Waugh came in. And batted with the phlegmatic calm you associate with the Australian captain under the most intense pressure. Gilchrist just needed to stay with him -- but having batted himself in very nicely, he emulated Ponting with a nothing shot, slashing at a ball from Kallis wide outside off to give Donald, on the line at backward point, the easiest of takes.

Bevan and Waugh then came together in a partnership that, on the surface, only appeared to push Australia deeper into the hole. 81/4 in 20 became 101/4 in 30. Unlike in the earlier match up, here Waugh didn't try to counter attack -- instead, he merely held his end up, taking singles only when possible (which against a hugely competent bowling lineup backed by fielding wherein Gibbs in particular was brilliant, was never easy) while Bevan, a batsman with a record of a run a ball or better, was going at a 40 per cent strike rate.

What they did, though, was keep the board ticking, if only barely. And consume overs, which was vital given that after these two, there was only Moody to come with a pedigree as batsman. Into the 35th over mark, Waugh decided to accelerate, and did so with characteristic despatch, hitting Klusener straight back for a four, then a six.

But an ill judged attempt to run a ball on line of off down to third man saw Waugh nicking to Boucher -- the shot works when the ball is outside line of off because the deflection off the bat takes it even further out of the keeper's reach. But when it is on the stumps, chances are the keeper will intercept -- and that mistake saw the back of Waugh just when he looked good to do an encore of his heroics the other day.

Shuan Pollock and Allan Donald then scythed through the Australian tail, the latter with two strikes in the 49th over, and ensured that well though Bevan batted at the other end, Australia never got within sniffing distance of the 250-odd they needed on this track.

South Africa, at the halfway stage, hadn't put a foot wrong. Their bowling was spot on, their fielding outstanding, they had actually bowled Australia out within the allotted overs, and looked well on course.

But they were batting second. On a pitch that first saw duty on May 29 when India played England, then again on June 10 when South Africa played New Zealand. This meant that for at least the last six days, this pitch would have stayed under covers with no major repair work, merely subjected to the routine watering and rolling. In effect, a well-preserved seventh day Test wicket, and that spells 'turn' in any lexicon.

Neither McGrath, who opened the bowling, nor Fleming, nor Reiffel, got any joy out of the track as the clouds of the morning gave way to blazing sunshine. Gibbs in particular was brilliant, time and again punching through the covers off the back foot or playing the most immaculate straight drives, to give the Proteas a blazing sendoff.

Finally, as early as the 13th over, Australia were forced to turn to Shane Warne. Ball two, floated up, pitching outside leg. Gibbs half-pushed forward, playing for minimal turn. Warne had given this one a real rip, though -- and the ball, a copy of that delivery that famously took out Gatting on a celebrated occasion, spun across the stumps and took out the off bail.

An over later, Warne floated one outside off, slightly short. Kirsten saw the length, and launched into a fierce sweep. The ball spun sharply, through the flailing bat, and onto the off stump.

Enter Cronje, South Africa's best player of spin. One ball later, exit Cronje, to an umpiring error by David Shepherd. The ball again was floated right up, lots of loop and spin, pitched leg, touched the toe of Cronje's beat, barely beat the push and flew to slip. Caught, ruled the umpire -- but the ball had just missed the edge.

From 48 for none to 53 for three, and South Africa's nerve cracked right there. Jonty Rhodes and Darrell Cullinan ran between wickets as though under some kind of suicidal urge -- and within a crazy 15 ball span, Rhodes twice, Cullinan once, were lucky to survive when direct throws failed to hit. On each occasion, the batsman in question was yards out as the ball flashed past the stumps.

Cullinan just couldn't put it together. He scored 6 in 30, surviving that long only because time and again, Warne did everything but remove the batsman. Rhodes then played one straight to mid off. Michael Bevan was in direct line of the ball, yet Rhodes decided to back himself to make the run. The trouble was, when mid off is standing on line of the stumps, the throw at the batting end is equally feasible -- and Bevan went for that end, throwing down the stumps with Cullinan two feet away from safety.

Jacques Kallis and Jonty Rhodes then got together in a partnership that, if it didn't get runs in a hurry, at least prevented a complete rout. With Warne sending down maidens like they were going out of style and the other bowlers suddenly upping their game a notch and sustaining pressure at the other end, both batsmen struggled while the ask rate, just over four at the start of the innings, went up above the seven an over mark. Crucially, too, the inability of the batsmen to attack flat out meant that Steve Waugh could quickly bowl his fifth bowler -- a combination of Moody and Mark Waugh -- out before the pressure mounted towards the death.

144/4 in 40 overs, and it was -- though the ask was high -- still even money. Nerve was going to make the difference, and Jonty's was the first to crack. A needless attempt to swing a ball from outside off, over midwicket saw him hole out to Michael Bevan. This meant that not only had Rhodes, then well set, throw it away at a crucial point, but the new man in had to waste precious deliveries getting his eye in.

Strangely, Cronje did not, at that stage, send in Lance Klusener, riding a high after a string of incredible finishes, but stuck to the rule book and sent out Pollock. The all rounder did his bit, with a cameo 20 off 14, but his struggle during the first few balls saw the pressure mount on Kallis. In the first ball of Warne's final over, the batsman checked a drive and put it in the air. Reiffel at deep mid off failed to read the ball in flight, and muffed a sitter, not even getting hands to it. Pollock then clubbed Warne for a six and a four, then a single to give Kallis back the strike. Warne produced a floater around leg, Kallis again checked a push, and this time the ball spooned to cover where Steve Waugh wasn't fluffing it.

Enter Klusener. And exit Pollock, stepping a long way to leg and playing all round a Fleming yorker to lose middle stump. that brought Boucher to the wicket, and South Africa's erstwhile pinch hitter struggled to put bat to ball as McGrath turned in an outstanding bowling display, capping it with the perfect yorker to finish off Boucher.

Klusener, meanwhile, was hitting with a clinical precision that indicated he would do the deed yet again. However, in what was turning into a pressure cooker finale, South Africa's brittle nerve, having cracked already, split wide open. Klusener clubbed one to long off. The single was easy, but they went for two. Reiffel's throw zeroed in on the stumps, McGrath with great presence of mind, realising that to gather and break the stumps would waste a precious second, palmed the ball down onto the stumps, and Elworthy was gone.

That was in the 49th over. Klusener with a single off the last ball kept the strike, brought it to the tape with nine needed in six -- and the rest, as narrated at the start of this report, is the stuff of dramatic history.

A tie. 20 wickets falling inside 100 overs. Everything down to the wire. You couldn't have asked for a better semifinal.

Hansie Cronje, coming out for the post match sound bites, was a broken man -- his eyes rimmed red, his voice choking, he mumbled the mandatory praises for Australia and exited before breaking down.

One couldn't but feel sorry for Cronje and his lot. They had played immaculate cricket right through the tournament. In keeping with their 75 per cent winning record in recent times, in fact. But their one fatal flaw was to surface yet again. The Proteas always play 100 per cent, whether it is against Australia or against Bangladesh. But come the crunch, come the time they need that one extra gear, that one quirk of genius, they find they don't have it to give.

And that, in the final analysis, was the difference between the two teams on the day. South Africa did everything right and lost it at the very end. Australia did a lot wrong -- two missed catches in the outfield, one more off Kallis behind the stumps, at least five clear run out chances missed. But when it counted, their nerve held. And Warne produced that extra little bit, that unexpected extra gear, that quirk of genius.

It is early days yet, perhaps. But on this form, it has to be a brave chappie who will bet against this Australian side in the final, to be played at Lord's on Sunday, June 20.


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