Across a few novels, films and television shows, we often find it nearly impossible to predict what lies ahead. Sometimes, until the final scene or the last chapter, we are unable to foresee how the story ends. Such works of art are usually the finest.
In cricket, there have been numerous matches that have gone down to the final over or even the final delivery. But only a few are as well remembered as the contest between Australia and South Africa at the 1999 World Cup. It was a match that had so many twists and turns that even the greatest fiction writers would wish to have noted down such a tale.
At the end of the Super Six stage, Australia and South Africa were placed second and third respectively. While both teams had finished on an equal number of points, the 1987 World Cup winners were ranked higher because of a greater net run-rate – this would turn out to be so crucial in the end.
Just four days before the epic semi-final, the two teams had met in the final match of the Super Six phase. After finding themselves 48/3 in a must-win encounter, Steve Waugh’s superb unbeaten century guided Australia to victory and a place in the final four. There was, of course, the dropped catch by Herschelle Gibbs which gave Waugh a reprieve and is spoken about even to this day.
On 17 June 1999, the stage was set at Edgbaston in Birmingham for what was expected to be an enthralling game of cricket, but no one would have guessed just how enthralling the match would turn out to be. South Africa won the toss and elected to field first – interestingly, in the Super Six stage match against the same opposition, they had batted first after winning the toss.
Mark Waugh was dismissed in the first over and the Australian top-order struggled just as they had done in their previous game and were soon reduced to 68/4. With captain Steve Waugh and Michael Bevan in the middle though, there was hope in the Australian camp as both batsmen had a reputation of thriving in a crisis situation. And that is exactly what they did on this occasion.
The duo shared a 90-run stand, with both going on to notch up half-centuries. This partnership brought the Australians right back into the contest, but the wickets of Steve Waugh and Tom Moody in the same over (40th) put South Africa firmly on the front foot.
Like so many times in his career, Bevan stuck around with the tail and helped Australia to a score of 213 before they were bowled out in the final over of the innings.
South Africa’s premier pace duo of Shaun Pollock and Allan Donald had delivered on the big occasion, picking up five and four wickets respectively.
In reply, the Proteas got off to a superb start and found themselves 48/0 at the end of the 12th over.
Three years earlier in Mohali, when Australia were on the brink of elimination during the 1996 World Cup semi-final against West Indies, Shane Warne had produced an extraordinary spell of bowling to guide his team to the final. And at Edgbaston in 1999, Warne was once again at it.
The Australia leg-spinner bowled the well-set Gibbs – who had scored a century in the Super Six stage match between the two sides – with an outstanding delivery. Batsmen were often left in disbelief at how Warne had managed to dismiss them and this was one such instance.
In his next over, Warne got the wicket of Gary Kirsten and then dismissed South Africa skipper Hansie Cronje. Single-handedly, Warne had changed the course of the match. Just like in 1996, from the brink, he had brought Australia back into the game. South Africa had suddenly gone from 48/0 to 53/3. During this spell, not only was Warne taking wickets but also bowled three consecutive maiden overs which put the breaks on the Proteas’ scoring rate.
A while later, Darryl Cullinan was run-out for six off 30 deliveries and South Africa found themselves in real trouble. From the end of the 12th over until the end of the 22nd, in 10 overs, they had lost four wickets and had managed just 14 runs.
Then, came another fightback. Neither team was letting the other run away with the game – a common theme in this match. This time it was South Africa’s turn with Jacques Kallis and Jonty Rhodes putting on an 84-run partnership. There were immense similarities with the Australian innings, a fifth-wicket stand after four top-order wickets had fallen for 60-odd runs.
Shaun Pollock would then play a quickfire knock which seemed to put his side on their way to victory. It’s worth remembering that Lance Klusener – who was having a stunning tournament with the bat and would later be named the Player of the Tournament – was still waiting in the wings. He would finally come out to bat when Kallis was dismissed off the penultimate delivery of Warne’s spell.
Klusener didn’t take much time to settle down, hitting a boundary off just the second delivery he faced. But at the other end, Pollock was soon on his way back to the pavilion.
The situation had come down to 18 runs needed off the last two overs. An excellent yorker from Glenn McGrath brought Mark Boucher’s stay at the crease to an end and the run-out of Steve Elworthy a couple of deliveries later meant that it was all up to Klusener. 16 runs needed off eight deliveries, with one wicket in hand.
The match could have ended off the next delivery as Paul Reiffel, who had ran Elworthy out the ball before, dropped a difficult chance which resulted in a six. Klusener took a single off the final delivery of the over and the equation was down to nine runs off six balls. It was Klusener vs Damien Fleming.
Fleming’s tactic to bowl around the wicket didn’t work as Klusener struck two brilliant boundaries through the off-side. The scores were tied, but South Africa needed one more run to reach the final as Australia would go through if the match ended in a tie because they had ranked higher during the Super Six stage.
Fleming moved to over the wicket and the third delivery of the over saw a run-out opportunity missed by Darren Lehmann with Donald backing up too much at the non-striker’s end. There was so much drama that you couldn’t predict what was going to happen next.
The next delivery saw Australia presented with another run-out opportunity and they took it this time around. While Donald had backed up too far off the previous delivery, here he had turned his back as Klusener looked to come through for a single. It was the greatest ODI played until then, the match ended with no winner according to the scorecard, yet it turned out to be a day of great joy for one team and a bitter pill to swallow for the other.
A few days later, Australia defeated Pakistan in the final to secure their second World Cup trophy. In fact, this would be the first match in a run of 25 successive wins in the World Cup for the Australians – they won every game while successfully defending their title in 2003 and 2007. Having won the 2015 edition too, they have five titles in the bag – the highest by a distance.
South Africa, on the other hand, are yet to win the World Cup. Their only victory in a knockout match at the tournament came against Sri Lanka in 2015.
P.S. – In 2006, the two teams produced another classic – a match which would rival the 1999 semi-final then as the greatest ODI ever played. Australia, batting first, managed 434/4 in their 50 overs – it was a record, the first time a 400+ total was scored in men's ODIs. Incredibly, South Africa successfully chased down the target with one wicket and one delivery left in Johannesburg.