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"Can You Believe That? I Can't Believe It!" The greatest ODI Of Them All
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Was Shane Warne's four-wicket haul the greatest World Cup performance in history?

Five wins on the trot – the most recent, a remarkable win over tournament favourites South Africa – had given Australia a genuine chance of winning the 1999 World Cup after appearing to have no hope a month earlier.

But having defied form and fortune to reach the semi-final, the Australians knew they would confront an opponent hellbent on atoning for an unexpected loss that was engineered by Steve Waugh and facilitated by Herschelle Gibbs’ inexcusable fielding lapse. The fact that Australia’s big guns – the Waugh brothers, Glenn McGrath and Michael Bevan, although not yet Shane Warne – had all begun to fire meant opinion was split on which team was likely to win through.

The only consensus was that the semi-final at Edgbaston would have to be one heck of a game to outdo the Super Six clash of four days earlier. The audacious run at the prize by Steve Waugh’s team had also snapped the Australian public, sports fans and otherwise, from their slumber. Television sets that had sat cold and unused during the wee hours of the Antipodean winter were suddenly being switched on and kept on until the approach of dawn when games in England reached their climax.

The interest of newspaper editors had been similarly stirred, and the touring media contingent worked through the night after the Headingley win in an attempt to do justice to what was already being billed as ‘Australia’s most memorable one-day triumph’. It was a title that survived for all of 96 hours. By the time we dragged ourselves along to Australian training the next day, the press corps was as desperate for any line that might be spun into a story and draped beneath a headline as we were for a few hours of uninterrupted kip. My search for a story led me away from the Australians’ training session at Edgbaston’s adjoining nets and inside the main stadium, having been drawn by a series of hammer blows that echoed chillingly across the vacant seats. Settling into what I hoped was the safety of the Eric Hollies Stand, I watched South Africa’s coach, Bob Woolmer, who stood a quarter-way along one of the central pitches, and repeatedly throw badly scuffed off -white cricket balls at the feet of a batsman I recognised as Lance Klusener.

An Afrikaner as muscular as he was humourless, Klusener had emerged as the undisputed player of the World Cup. Over the previous month, he had brutalised every opposing bowling attack by wielding his hefty 3lb 2oz bat with the menace and effect of an executioner’s axe. From my vantage point at extra deep mid-wicket, I counted seven consecutive strikes that sent attempted yorkers screaming over the fence. Each swing was accompanied by a distinctive ‘crrrack … crrrack’, not unlike the report from a .22 rifle. I made a note that should the semi-final come down to a shoot-out between Klusener and Australia’s bowlers, I would have to back the bloke nicknamed ‘Zulu’. As the match unfolded, that scenario became more and more unlikely. The Australian batsmen again faltered early, but this time there was no miracle mid-innings rescue, or fielding faux pas to save them.

Consequently, Waugh’s men finished their innings at least 20 or 30 runs shy of a total that press box wisdom deemed satisfactory. As the Australians prepared to return to the field, lifting themselves to once more defy expectation and a buoyant opposition, it was Warne who again grasped their attention. This time he served to confuse, rather than inspire. Curiously, he challenged his comrades to summon up a mighty collective effort because “this might be the end for some of us”. For the benefit of anyone who might have missed the subtlety of his pre-emptive retirement announcement, he repeated it. Those who took the field with minds troubled by the leg-spinner’s timing found no comfort in the cricket.

The South African batsmen, led by a chastened Herschelle Gibbs, began at a sprightly clip. Then Warne took the ball and history arrived. With his eighth delivery, Warne defeated Gibbs with a leg break that would have held claim to ‘ball of the century’ had the spinner not already secured that honour with his inaugural Test delivery on English soil, six years earlier. This one appeared to be drifting harmlessly down leg side before it dipped alarmingly towards the batsman’s left ankle, and compelled him to poke at it like someone trying to scotch a snake with an umbrella tip. Upon landing, the ball changed direction so fiercely that Gibbs had no option but to limply follow it with his bat. He was unable to catch it up before it clattered into his off stump.

For the second time in as many matches, the South African stood stunned, unable to comprehend what had just taken place. Warne simply exploded. Months of pent-up frustration, self-doubt, anger, humiliation and defeated ambition surged out of him as he pumped his fists furiously and exhorted his teammates to believe. The huddle that formed was part celebratory, part protective custody as the Australians tried to restrain the frenzied leggie lest he lose the plot he had just rewritten. When he repeated the sorcery to remove the other opener five balls later, Warne’s reaction was even more bullish. He was back where he belonged – in the spotlight. And through sheer strength of character, reawakened belief in his ability, and an extraordinary capacity to deliver his unique skills amid the most demanding circumstances, he was dragging his team, and his country, into its warm glow.

The next three hours showcased the thrust and parry that only top level sport can conjure. South Africa threatened to once more implode, then rallied to nose in front. Australia clawed back and panic gripped the South Africans yet again. The decisive chance was created in the penultimate over, but the catch went begging and cost a crucial six runs into the bargain. Eventually, it boiled down to a basic equation. One over to bowl. Nine runs to win. No spare batsmen remaining. Klusener versus Australia. Quick Single: Four balls, one special memory Back home, millions of pyjama-clad night owls sat transfixed to their televisions, wide-eyed and white-knuckled even though it was closing in on 3 a.m. on a frosty mid-June Friday.

But having watched Klusener prepare for this very contingency, I felt I had entered a dreamlike state of déjà vu. The dull throb that snapped me back to reality as Damien Fleming began the final over was Klusener, jaw squared, eyes narrowed, bludgeoning his enormous bat into the pitch. It sent an unmistakable message of intent, even before he sent the first two balls Fleming served up scorching to the boundary rope. Scores were level. What happened over the next few minutes has been etched into the subconscious of countless cricket fans the world over.

With three 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 almighty blow, the ball dribbled off a hefty 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. 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. By dint 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. And in the space of one botched attempt at a single the unthinkable had become distinctly possible. Australia’s World Cup dream remained alive. In three days’ time at Lord’s, only Pakistan could deny them. This is an edited extract from ‘The Wrong Line’ by Andrew Ramsey published by ABC Books and which is available in paperback or e-book through the ABC Shop

157,147 views Jun 17, 2015

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