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Were South Africa really unlucky in the 1992 World Cup?

The scoreboard says it all - or does it? Getty Images

In the first article in a new series where we bring new perspectives to bear on received cricket wisdom: a look at South Africa and their exit from the 1992 World Cup

You emerge after 22 years in exile. Your fielders manufacture sensational run-outs that become posters on a thousand bedroom walls. Your lightning-quick bowlers strike fear in grizzled veteran and intrepid youngster alike. You become darlings of the crowd. You make the semi-final. You need 22 off 13 balls to advance further, having scored 25 off your last 17 balls. All the momentum, the hope, is yours. What a fairy tale.

Then it rains. Then you need 22 off seven.

Then it turns out there has been a miscommunication. It's 22 off one (actually 21 off one, but how does it matter?).

How unfair. How cruel. What a heartbreak.

This is perhaps the most striking example of only the final moments of a tight cricket match living on in the popular memory. To most cricket followers, the notion that South Africa were anything but robbed in the 1992 World Cup semi-final comes as a genuine surprise.

The villain of the piece, of course, was the rain rule, designed to curtail the advantage chasing sides had, but South Africa's role in their own downfall merits further examination.

Let's get the rain rule out of the way. Before this World Cup, targets were revised on the basis of the required run rate at the start of the innings, which made it unfair on teams that batted first. For example, if your target was 250, and rain reduced your innings to 20 overs, you were asked to chase just 100. The new rain rule went to the other extreme, removing the least productive overs from the side batting first. For example, if you played three maidens in your 50 overs, and rain then reduced the chase to 47 overs, the target would remain the same. The logic behind this was that chasing sides still had time to alter their approach, but nobody imagined the havoc it would wreak if the interruption occurred deep into a match or in a low-scoring match.

Both cases had already played themselves out earlier in the tournament. Zimbabwe were 104 for 1 in 19.1 overs, chasing India's 203 set in 32 overs, when it began to rain. India had been 106 for 3 at the same stage of their innings. From needing 100 off 77 balls with nine wickets in hand, Zimbabwe went to being 54 short of a par score with no further play. India were on the receiving end themselves when they lost three overs against Australia but had their target adjusted by just two runs.

"Getting stuck with an improbable target if it rained was a risk South Africa were willing to take. They made a carefully considered decision based on risk and reward."

When England bowled Pakistan out for 74, they found themselves struggling in the chase thanks to the rain. Their revised target after three hours of rain was 64 from 16 overs; they were 24 in eight overs when further rain forced the sides to split points.

With that in mind, it's fair to say fielding first with rain in the air was unwise. Which is why Ian Chappell, at the toss at the SCG that day, struggled to contain his surprise when Kepler Wessels decided to insert England.

"Kepler, not too worried about the rain?" Chappell asked.

"Yeah it is a calculated risk," Wessels said. "… If it rains [and] we are bowling, it is not too bad. The problem comes if you are batting tonight and it rains, but that is a risk we are prepared to take."

Talk about tempting fate, eh?

Here's the data to back up that calculated risk: South Africa had won all three games in which they had chased before this (twice after winning the toss); they had lost three out of five batting first, including against England, who had won three of their four completed matches chasing.

Wessels couldn't have been unaware of the advantages of batting first: in an earlier league match, Pakistan were 74 for 2 in 21.3 overs chasing South Africa's 211 when rain converted their target to a near-impossible 194 in 36 overs. The Duckworth Lewis Stern method today would have set Pakistan a target of 164.

So, getting stuck with an improbable target if it rained was a risk South Africa were willing to take. They had made a carefully considered decision based on risk and reward. By itself, this should be enough to take the "victims" tag off South Africa, but they did much more to muddy the waters, pardon the rain pun.

***

In Down Under, his 319-page love letter to Australia, the American writer Bill Bryson writes of how the country's rampant capitalism reminded him of the USA. Before satellite TV infiltrated Asia and every square inch of player uniforms was sold to sponsors, Australia was the most commercialised country when it came to cricket. In 1992, it meant TV dictating match timings. Australian TV didn't allow any flexibility in case of delays. So you got to bat for only as many overs were bowled in the three and a half hours allocated per innings. There would be no readjustment to make up for denying the batting side their slog overs.

In other words, if you didn't mind a financial penalty, you could slow the game down tactically to cancel out the disadvantage of chasing under the unfair rain rule. As Martin Johnson pointed out in the Independent, South Africa bowled only 45 overs in the allocated time, "a calculated plan to disorientate a batting side which, naturally enough, sets out to pace their innings over the full distance".

For this, the players were each fined 20% of their match payments. "The tardiness appeared to be a cynical attempt at damage control when more conventional methods - like bowling line and length - failed, although Wessels insisted it was not a deliberate ploy…" the Melbourne Age's book of the tournament said. "The only mitigating factor for South Africa was that it bowled an extra 16 balls for sundry indiscretions, although that, of course, was nobody's fault except its own."

On air, towards the end of the innings, when Dermot Reeve was toying around with Allan Donald, commentators were not impressed with what they saw as South Africa's gamesmanship.

"Will be the last over, [it's] 6.09 [pm] at the Sydney cricket Ground," Bill Lawry said. "Donald certainly taking his time walking back to the mark. They have slowed the game down, South Africa. Prepared to sacrifice the opportunity to bat 50 overs themselves."

David Gower, a minute later: "So the clock has just moved to 6.10. So if it is a tactic, it has worked very well for South Africa. The last thing they would have wanted to see was another 17-18 runs coming off the next over." The scheduled finish was 6.10pm because play had begun ten minutes late thanks to rain. Tea was cut short to make up for those ten minutes.

Whether it was cynical or not - South Africa bowled their fair share of extras, and had a brief spell of rain (which didn't stop play) to contend with - the fact remains that England didn't get a fair use of their quota of overs, which makes it pretty difficult to pace an innings, particularly when to start going for the slog.

Chappell put it best on air: "England have timed their innings, or paced their innings, over 50 overs. Now South Africa are going to have the advantage of pacing their innings over 45 overs. Now that is quite an advantage to the team that has offended."

In such a scenario, England deserved every bit of assistance the rain rule gave them later in the day. Unless, of course, there was a sophisticated system that could readjust their score to set South Africa a fair target.

***

We have such a system now. Among other things, the DLS method readjusts targets when sides batting first are told in the middle of the innings that they won't get their full allotment. Let's try to get as sophisticated as we can with it. For that it's important to work out when England realised they would not be getting their full 50 overs.

It is in the 26th over that Tony Greig, on air, identifies the slow over rate, but it's not a huge issue at this point. In the 36th over, though, everyone begins to realise it won't be a full innings because South Africa need to bowl 14 overs in 45 minutes. This is when Neil Fairbrother starts getting adventurous. Let's assume there was an interruption at the end of the 35th over (score 182 for 3) that reduces the innings to 47 overs and brings DLS into play. And another at the end of the 44th over (score 234 for 6), which further reduces the innings to 45.

"Whether it was cynical from South Africa or not, the fact remains that England didn't get a fair use of their quota of overs. They didn't even know how many overs they would get"

The DLS today readjusts South Africa's target to 272, and that would be with fewer overs of field restrictions. As it happened, they got away with having to chase 252 with a full 15 overs of field restrictions. A further DLS simulation would have been fun, but unfair because South Africa would have planned their innings accordingly, and would have striven to score more than the 231 for 6 they had made when rain arrived in the 43rd over.

For what it's worth, assuming the innings had gone on as it had, South Africa's revised target would have been 21 off one ball, which - ironically - is exactly what the flawed rain rule set. If you are about to shout to correct me with the famous photo of the big screen showing "22 off 1", I'll let you in on another error. While chopping off the least productive overs from England's innings, the officials forgot there had been a leg-bye in one of the two maidens. The real target was 21 off one ball.

There is no guarantee England would have won if South Africa had begun their chase with the DLS target in mind, but England were forced to defend about 20 fewer than would have been a fair score today.

This writer is not naïve enough to sermonise, but players and teams that take advantage of the rules need to live with the consequences. If as a non-striker you steal ground, fair play to you, but don't play victim when you are run out by the bowler. The same happened with South Africa in 1992: they took a "calculated risk" by bowling first, they tried to game a system, and they paid the price. They were no more unlucky than a side packed with spinners that chooses to bat first today despite rain and dew forecast in the second innings. "I'm not quite sure why South Africa would be complaining, they only bowled 45 overs themselves," Lawry said on air.

In a funny way, the flawed rain rule undid the wrongs of a flawed over-rate playing condition. If any party was hard done by 28 years ago, it was England, who negotiated the moving ball at the start, had their slog overs taken away, and yet had to be sheepish about a well deserved win.