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Steve Waugh's finest hour

When the chips were down at Headingley, Australia's captain turned it on

With his captaincy on the line, Waugh played the greatest innings seen on the World Cup stage  •  Getty Images

With his captaincy on the line, Waugh played the greatest innings seen on the World Cup stage  •  Getty Images

Steve Waugh
120 not out v South Africa, 1999
Losses to Pakistan and New Zealand meant that Australia went into the Super Sixes with no margin for error whatsoever. Victories against India and Zimbabwe put them back on track, but victory against South Africa was essential if a semi-final place was to be clinched. Having tussled for supremacy over the past few seasons, there was little love lost between the sides, and the vicious criticism directed at Steve Waugh after an uncertain start to his captaincy career merely added spice to the contest.
The key moment came perhaps the night before, at a team meeting where Shane Warne cautioned his mates not to walk if they happened to hit a catch to Herschelle Gibbs. "He has a tendency to flick the ball away before accepting it properly," said Warne, only to be greeted with mocking laughs.
The next morning South Africa powered their way to 271, with Gibbs making a superb century. Australia's response was coloured by doubt - Adam Gilchrist bowled, Mark Waugh run out, and Damien Martyn lofting a catch to mid-on. When Waugh strode out, with the board showing 48 for 3, Australia's hopes appeared to be in tatters. "Let's see how he takes the pressure now," taunted Gibbs.
Waugh urged a struggling Ricky Ponting to go for his strokes, showing the way with some punishing shots of his own. He reached his 50 from just 47 balls, and between overs 20 and 30, 82 runs were pounded out to keep the South Africans on their toes. Some weren't as alert as others, though.
Waugh had made 56, with the score on 152, when he flicked a Lance Klusener delivery to midwicket. Gibbs took it, but in his anxiety to celebrate with a skyward hurl, he dropped the ball. Waugh's reaction has gone down in the game's annals. Though he admitted later that it was stupid, he told Gibbs: "I hope you realise that you've just lost the game for your team".
It was far from over. In the 39th over, Hansie Cronje brought back Allan Donald, one of the greats of the age. Waugh's response was to crash two fours, including one astonishing thwack over cover that left Donald more than a touch bemused. Steve Elworthy fared no better, swept over midwicket for six as Waugh powered towards a remarkable century.
It arrived in 91 balls, and with support from Michael Bevan (27) and Tom Moody (15 not out), victory was clinched with two balls to spare. Waugh finished with an unbeaten 120 from 110 balls. With all due apologies to Vivian Richards and Kapil Dev, it was the greatest innings that the World Cup had seen.

Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo