South Africa win the greatest match of all March 12, 2006

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Did it really happen? Mark Boucher shows it did © Getty Images

Okay, why did that happen? Nearly 900 runs in one day, that doesn't happen - ever. Not in Twenty20, not in club cricket, not even in my back garden against my eight-year-old brother. So my question is why? I really want to know because I was there.

The pitch was a flat, quick deck with a carpet for an outfield, but games have been played in these conditions before. There've been plenty of flat decks and plenty of shorter boundaries with worse bowlers and big hitters. It's at altitude, the air is thinner, the ball flies further. Yes, but it's not the first game to be played on the high veld, no single batsman has ever gone massive here, Tests tend to be won [or lost] not dominated by the bat and ODIs do produce big scores, but nothing like this. Maybe there was a fix - come to think of it, there was a chap outside on a mobile phone with what looked like 22 leather jackets ... but that's a hideous thought.

Actually, the Wanderers, one of South Africa's most picturesque grounds set in the rolling, tree-lined suburbs of Johannesburg, does have previous. And usually to Australia's advantage. Steve Waugh and Greg Blewett batted all day in a Test in 1996-97 [I was there for that as well] and Adam Gilchrist smashed the then-fastest Test double-hundred as an emotional retort to personal abuse from the crowd in 2001-02. They won the 2003 World Cup here with a then-mammoth 359. And there was the Twenty20 earlier in the tour where the Australians fell two runs short chasing 200. If that was a signal of things to come, no one spotted it.

The key factor, though, was the absence of two players, Glenn McGrath and Shaun Pollock. This was a like-for-like loss - both bowl maidens in their sleep, causing much of the crowd to doze, and set the tone and pace for a day's play. Without them, anything can happen - and it did.

The game was cricket anarchy. Rules were ignored, conventional wisdom flown against, high-risks equalled high reward in every situation. Every gamble paid off, every scooped slog fell into space, every shy at the stumps missed. As the pressure and the run rate mounted so did the ferocity of the South African onslaught. Bat first, win the toss and bury the game - that is exactly what the Australians did and although they protested there was no "job-done" mentality, when you've just smashed a world record that's stood for ten years, you don't expect it to get beaten in the next three hours. South Africa has experienced a lawless past - for one glorious afternoon, the country re-visited it.

What was it like to be there? I'm not sure. The whole game was a blur of batting and you couldn't pick out the detail. Every time the bowler ran in, the ball disappeared to the boundary, often for six. Every time you looked at the scoreboard you had a double-take, could there really be that many overs left? Is that really the run rate?

And this was for both teams. With each run scored by the home side, the crowd went mad. When Herschelle Gibbs struck one of his seven sixes, the crowd made so much noise you worried for the structure of the stands. When Mark Boucher struck the winning runs, they couldn't control themselves and for a brief period real anarchy took over as the crowd on the pitch out-numbered the yellow jackets chasing them.



Shaun Pollock was missing - surely this type of game couldn't have happened if he was playing? © Getty Images

But it wasn't always like this - the South African faithful had suffered several stages of mourning through the Australian innings as Ricky Ponting, Adam Gilchrist, Michael Hussey and Simon Katich made South Africa's best looked like school girls. First there was anger as Andrew Hall bowled badly, followed by disbelief as Ponting swept Jacques Kallis on one knee for six, then hope (Gilchrist out) then despair. The 400 was passed with three overs left to bowl. By the end of the Australian innings, the crowd was smiling - that is all you could do. The game was up, let's sit back and enjoy this immense display of hitting and witness how many records the Australians could break. Little did they know.

As with all sporting moments of brilliance there are failures and victims. In this particular game, they were collectively known as bowlers. Superiority of bat over ball was such that you felt a bit dirty, like watching a 7-6 thriller in football - amazing but only because both defences were rubbish. It didn't matter because the South Africans love the tacky excess of one-day cricket. It is for them what Test cricket is for England fans, so this was a day of nail-biting clichés, tense faces, unable-to-watch syndrome, the nerve-shredding Ashes emotions of "I am glad I was around to witness it but I never want to go through that again".

Similarly to the Ashes, this game was a culmination of on and off pitch drama that started before Christmas in Australia, came to a head in Durban on Friday where the visitors levelled the series with a one-wicket win, and exploded with unbearable tension on what surely is the greatest one-day game ever.

Cricket is heading in this direction, though, and however tempting it might be to say this game will never be matched, you'll be wrong. When Fred Trueman took his 300th Test wicket, they thought that'd never get beaten. Now 400 has been passed twice in the same game - 500 is next. I just hope I'm there to see it.

Edward Craig is deputy editor of The Wisden Cricketer

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