As Australia and South Africa continued to play their part in expanding cricket's frontiers at Melbourne's Colonial Stadium today, so they added to their own inimitable legend. With the spectre of no less than their second tie in the space of five meetings, their reputation for producing some of the more remarkable finishes in one-day international history remains as pronounced as it has ever done. This was a spectacular result at a spectacular venue on a spectacularly peculiar night of sport in Melbourne.
On a day which again dawned with expansive evidence of blue sky but which remained mild enough in temperature to remind everybody that this series is being played in the opposite season to the one nature intended for the sport, it was another occasion which undeniably championed the cause of shifting one-day international cricket indoors. At a final figure of 35724, the crowd was close to ten thousand in excess of Wednesday's roll-up and there was a genuine sense of atmosphere around the ground all day. No more so of course than in the closing stages as the Australian batting line-up dramatically disintegrated, revived itself, stumbled again, and then hung on for grim life, all in the space of the match's closing seventeen overs. Four wickets fell and thirty-three runs were scored in the home team's final five overs no less. Another wicket came in the form of the run out of Jason Gillespie (0) from the third last ball of the contest before Shane Warne (9*) played the match's penultimate delivery to fine third man for two runs and then struck the closing ball straight down the ground to scramble a single and leave the scores in their locked state. This was all as the Australians pursued a target of 227 for victory - a score which seemed well within reach for most of the game's evening session.
From the scoreline of 2/146 to which Mark Waugh (48), Ricky Ponting (39) and Adam Gilchrist (37) had guided them by the thirty-fourth over, it is hard to pinpoint how and why events unravelled as they did for the Australians. Maybe it was Damien Martyn (18) overplaying a conventional delivery from left arm spinner Nicky Boje (2/33); maybe it was Andrew Symonds (17) chopping a Lance Klusener (2/41) delivery back into his stumps; maybe it was a rash cross-batted stroke from Ian Harvey (7) at Klusener, which was the turning point. Maybe of most consequence of all was the fact that Michael Bevan (3) was batting as low as number eight in the order, and without anything like his usual polish, as a legacy of dislocating a knuckle on his right index finger when grassing a simple catch in the outfield earlier in the afternoon.
And then again maybe it was the tactical nous of South African skipper Shaun Pollock in shuffling his attack and reconfiguring his field settings imaginatively. More specifically, maybe it was his daring in throwing the ball to medium pacer Andrew Hall (2/8 from three overs) as late as the forty-fifth over of the innings. Hall's first ever international wickets - Bevan (3) and Steve Waugh (30) - could hardly have been any more crucially conjured. That some among the crowd missed a number of these events as they huddled around television monitors scattered across the stadium to watch the finish of an Australian Rules Football final across town at the Melbourne Cricket Ground only made the quest for a definitive answer more complex.
Earlier, a defiant fifth wicket stand of eighty-seven runs between Jonty Rhodes (54) and Mark Boucher (51) had hoisted the South Africans to the respectable scoreline of 8/226 around a steady fall of wickets at either end of their own innings. After a steady, albeit unspectacular, Australian bowling performance had dominated the early part of the day, the pair extricated the Proteas out of a difficult predicament at 4/95 in the twenty-sixth over and set their side on the way to its competitive position on a pitch that again played truly.
Despite being hindered by the same groin injury that has plagued him for much of the last two years (and being forced to use a runner after his score had reached 45), Rhodes was at his feisty best. Adroit placement of the ball to both sides of the ground, and clever running between the wickets - insofar as it was possible for him initially - created a double benefit: it lifted a sagging run rate dramatically and upset the rhythm of his opponents. In the midst of a period during which forty runs were plundered between the start of the thirty-seventh and the end of the fortieth overs, he hit a succession of glorious shots. Among these, the best were a commanding pull off Glenn McGrath (1/37)'s bowling; a well controlled back-cut off Warne (0/33) - each of which beat fieldsmen to the rope - and then a sweetly struck six high over mid off to continue his punishment of the former.
As for Boucher, he also paced his innings well and played with a similar clarity of timing. He was slower to reach his half century but issued some similarly authoritative shots. Of these, perhaps there were none better than a powerful shot to the cover boundary off Harvey (2/43) in the thirty-fourth over and a similarly well laced cover drive off McGrath four overs later. As matters transpired, Bevan's unsuccessful effort to complete what appeared a simple catch at deep backward square leg when the wicketkeeper-batsman had a mere eight runs alongside his name loomed large among the defining moments of the innings - and, needless to report, the whole match too.
Aside from an excellent return to the international fray from Jason Gillespie (3/40), the Australian attack did not reach the same high points as in its disciplined display in the first match of the series two days ago. Some shoddier than usual fielding from the home team - Bevan's crucial missed catch, occasional fumbles, and the concession of a number of overthrows numbered among a string of errors - also featured. But it is probably fair to say that consideration of precisely how significant these were in the final analysis remained completely overshadowed. Instead, everyone here was left to gape in astonishment at the rapidity with which the complexion of a one-day fixture can turn almost full circle.