'If only the stumps had hair'
Many before the game, including your humble previewer, had not thought it possible for South Africa and Sri Lanka to match the drama of their previous encounter at the last World Cup. But an ambling kind of afternoon exploded into a startling finish as a man with what looks like a mangled skunk on his head full-pitched his way to four wickets from four balls. He was told by the press later it was a record.
One moment the South Africans were warming to the idea of their first points of the Super Eights, the next moment Lasith Malinga was rolling them over as suddenly as his bowling arm appears in delivery stride. Five runs were needed from five overs with five wickets in hand - consider it again - when it all began happening.
Shaun Pollock was defeated by a superb slower delivery - by Malinga's standards, for it still registered 135kph. A yet slower delivery duped Andrew Hall into popping one up. Thereafter it was back to extremely fast stuff. An over was finished and a new one begun. The rock steady Jacques Kallis tickled a swinging yorker to the keeper: that was the hat-trick. Makhaya Ntini might as have well not bothered to appear before the missile that zoned into the bottom of his middle stump: four in four.
With nine wickets down, and three runs to get Robin Peterson received a full one at 144kph which eluded the edge and the stumps. "It was pretty stressful out there in last five overs," said Graeme Smith. "Quite a few of the boys were having a cigarette or two."
The reverse-swingers kept coming. One of them was squirted by Peterson to point and Sanath Jayasuriya made a classic misfield and conceded a single. Two to win, one to tie. Malinga slung down another special so close to home. "If only the stumps had hair..." noted a journalist.
To a seven-two offside field with two slips, Chaminda Vaas bowled one of the more nerveless maidens in World Cup history, and then Malinga was back for a final shot. Mahela Jayawardene told him: "We were nowhere in the game, you've got us here. Just enjoy yourself."
Two balls later it finished with a low streak past slip to leave everyone in a daze. Peterson knocked down the stumps at the non-strikers' end and later thought he had actually run into them. Adjudicators awarded the Man-of-the-Match to Charl Langeveldt, then Malinga, and then both jointly. "Malinga was incredible," said Smith. "He made me age a bit."
Against a great burst of fast bowling this was a great escape for the South Africans. Not only would they have seen and heard the "choker" word wherever they went, but also been under pressure to win at least three of their next four games. Defeating Sri Lanka in what were almost Sri Lankan conditions was a coup. "Bar the last five overs," said Smith, "we dominated the game."
Smith himself set up the match, setting a hot pace against the new ball and winning a battle of wits. Early on Malinga left him a mark on the belly and Jayawardene installed a leg trap, with a very short square leg and a leg gully, but Smith weaved through them with superb flicks. He then began muscling over the infield so that when Murali was introduced, perhaps a few overs too late, the required rate had fallen to 3.5.
Immediately Muralitharan snuck one past the edge and the ball kept so low that it crept away beneath the keeper's gloves. The next over Smith was out stumped.
Fifty runs were needed from 18 overs with eight wickets in hand when Murali came within three inches of his own hat-trick with a classic double-strike, a flighted doosra and a fast offbreak, and then an appeal for bat-pad which umpire Daryl Harper excellently judged not out.
From the other end Jayasuriya began spinning things past the right-handers' bats. At the drinks interval a man with a broom swept dust off the pitch. It was clear that for Sri Lanka to win Murali had to extend his genius a little more. Jayawardene baffled all by removing Murali. He brought on Malinga. It took still another spell to justify it, but when it was all finished the thought seemed reasonable after all.
Rahul Bhattacharya is contributing editor of Cricinfo Magazine and author of Pundits from Pakistan: On Tour with India, 2003-04