South Africa win the greatest match of all
Seven years ago, in the semi-final of the 1999 World Cup, South Africa and Australia contested what has widely come to be regarded as the definitive one-day international. A total of 426 runs in two innings, twenty wickets in the day and world-class performances across the board - a match that built to a pulsating finale in which South Africa threw away their place in the World Cup final with what also came to be regarded as the definitive one-day choke.
Today, however, South Africa can be called chokers no longer, after burying the ghosts of 1999 with victory in a match even more extraordinary and nail-shredding than its illustrious forebear. Never mind 426 runs in a day, Australia had just posted a world-record 434 for 4 in a single innings - the first 400-plus total in the history of the game - with Ricky Ponting leading the line with an innings of cultured slogging that realised 164 runs of the highest class from just 105 balls. And yet they still lost - by one wicket, with one ball to spare, and with the Wanderers stadium reverting to the sort of Bullring atmosphere on which it forged its intimidating reputation.
At the halfway mark of the day, South Africa had been reduced to a near laughing stock. Ponting had been the kingpin as he reprised his World Cup-winning innings on this very ground in 2003, but every one of Australia's batsmen had taken their pound of flesh as well. Adam Gilchrist lit the blue touchpaper with an open-shouldered onslaught that realised 55 runs from 44 balls; Simon Katich provided a sheet-anchor with a difference as he creamed nine fours and a six in a 90-ball 79, and Mike Hussey - in theory Ponting's second fiddle in their 158-run stand for the third wicket - hurtled to a 51-ball 81. Australia's dominance seemed so complete that Andrew Symonds, the most notorious one-day wrecker in their ranks, was not even called upon until the scoreboard read a somewhat surreal 374 for 3.
Unsurprisingly, South Africa's bowlers took a universal pounding. Jacques Kallis disappeared for 70 runs in six overs and as the innings reached its crescendo, a flustered Roger Telemachus conceded 19 runs from four consecutive no-balls. The team had squandered a 2-0 series lead and were staring at a 3-2 defeat, and not for the first time this year, Graeme Smith's penchant for speaking his mind was looking like backfiring. With the Test series getting underway in four days' time, the need for a performance of pride had never been more urgent.
And so Smith took it upon himself to deliver, responding to his team's indignity with a brutal innings laced with fury. He made light of the early loss of Boeta Dippenaar, whose anchorman approach would not have been suited to the chase at any rate, and instead found the perfect ally in his former opening partner, Herschelle Gibbs. On a pitch that might have been sent from the Gods, the pair launched South Africa's response with a scathing stand of 187 from 121 balls, to send the first frissons of anxiety through the Australian dressing-room.
Smith made 90 from just 55 balls, and seemed set to trump Ponting's 71-ball century when he swatted the spinner, Michael Clarke, to Mike Hussey on the midwicket boundary. But Hussey's celebrations were manic and betrayed the creeping sense of foreboding that had taken hold of Australia's players. Just as South Africa had suffered for the absence of Shaun Pollock, so too was Glenn McGrath's constricting influence being missed. His understudies were simply not up to the task, with Mick Lewis earning an unwanted place in history as his ten overs were spanked for 113 runs - the most expensive analysis in any form of one-day international cricket.
Now it was Gibbs who took centre stage. The man who, memorably, dropped the World Cup at Headingley in that 1999 campaign has redeemed himself a hundred times over in the intervening years. But this was to be his crowning glory. With AB de Villiers providing a sparky sidekick, Gibbs carved great chunks out of the asking-rate, bringing up his century from 79 balls and rattling along so briskly that, by the 25-over mark, South Africa had 229 for 2 on the board, and needed a mere 206 to win. .
Only one contest could compare - the extraordinary C&G Trophy contest between Surrey and Glamorgan in 2002, when Alistair Brown scored 268 out of a total of 438 for 5, only for Glamorgan to track his side all the way with a reply of 429. In both instances, the sheer impossibility of the task galvanised the batting and turned the fielders' legs to jelly, and with Gibbs on 130, Nathan Bracken at mid-off dropped a sitter off a Lewis full-toss, and could only contemplate his navel as the Bullring roared its approval.
It was undeniably the decisive moment of the match. Bracken finished with a creditable 5 for 67, but this faux pas was written all across his features at the post-match presentations. Cashing in superbly, Gibbs hurtled to his 150 from exactly 100 balls, bringing up the landmark with his fifth six of the innings and the 21st of a bedlamic contest. He had reached a glorious 175 from 111 when Lee held onto a scuffed drive at mid-off. The stadium stood in acclaim, but with 136 runs still required and their main source of momentum gone, South Africa had plenty still to do.
Kallis and Mark Boucher regrouped with a steady partnership of 28 in six overs, but when the big-hitting Justin Kemp went cheaply, it took a blistering intervention from Johan van der Wath to reignite the chase. He drilled Lewis over long-off for two sixes in an over then added a six and a four in Bracken's eighth, as the requirement dropped from a tricky 77 from 42 balls to a gettable 36 from 22. He perished as he had lived, holing out to extra cover, and Telemachus followed soon afterwards, but not before he had clubbed an invaluable 12 from six balls.
And so it all came down to the final over, just as it had done at Edgbaston all those years ago. Brett Lee had seven runs to defend, and South Africa had two wickets in hand. A blazed four from Andrew Hall seemed to have settled the issue, but in a moment reminiscent of Lance Klusener's famous aberration, he smeared the very next delivery into the hands of Clarke at mid-on. Two runs needed then, and the No. 11, Makhaya Ntini, on strike. Lee's best effort was deflected to third man to tie the scores, and it was left to Boucher - with visions of Edgbaston swirling through his head - to seal the deal with a lofted four over mid-on. The most breathtaking game in one-day history had come to a grandstand finish, and all that remained was for the participants to pinch themselves.
Adam Gilchrist c Hall b Telemachus 55 (97 for 1)
Incredible tumbling catch, scooped one-handed off turf at mid-on
Simon Katich c Telemachus b Ntini 79 (216 for 2)
Uppercut to third man
Mike Hussey c Ntini b Hall 81 (374 for 3)
Full toss swatted to long-on
Ricky Ponting c Dippenaar b Telemachus 164 (407 for 4)
Blazing cover-drive plucked above head on boundary
Boeta Dippenaar b Bracken 1 (3 for 1)
Dragged onto off stump
Graeme Smith c Hussey b Clarke 90 (190 for 2)
Swatted to deep midwicket
AB de Villiers c Clarke b Bracken 14 (284 for 3)
Heaved to cow corner
Herschelle Gibbs c Lee b Symonds 175 (299 for 4)
Chipped drive to long-off
Jacques Kallis c&b Symonds 20 (327 for 5)
Diving return catch off firm drive
Justin Kemp c Martyn b Bracken 13 (355 for 6)
Toe-ended wide delivery to backward point
Johan van der Wath c Ponting b Bracken 35 (399 for 7)
Holed out to extra cover
Roger Telemachus c Hussey b Bracken 12 (423 for 8)
Spooned drive, brilliant sprawling catch
Andrew Hall c Clarke b Lee 7 (433 for 9)
Slap to mid-on
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo