Mark Boucher and Lance Klusener walk off in the rain

"How much water did you say has soaked into my shirt? Give it to me in kilolitres this time"

© Getty Images

The Zaltzmeister

Muddled by maths

Not a player or a team, South Africa have had a far more formidable foe in World Cups

Andy Zaltzman |

Mankind and mathematics have been uncomfortable bedfellows ever since evolution endowed us with an average of five digits on the end of each limb. Disastrous miscalculations have repeatedly scarred our history - from cave dwellers in the distant past underestimating how many meals a dinosaur needs in a 24-hour period, to the Titanic floundering because its Automatic Iceberg Collisions Limiter was set to a maximum of 1 instead of 0. Global finance, meanwhile, continues to prove on an almost daily basis that numbers are not to be trusted under any circumstances, particularly when being interpreted, operated or vigorously massaged by people.

No sphere of human activity has had such a mutually beneficial relationship with numbers as cricket. As much as hitting things with sticks is a fundamental human impulse, it cannot be denied that the appending of arithmetic to this timelessly elemental activity has been crucial to the popularity of the sport. (It is noteworthy that, in countries where counting is illegal, cricket has struggled to make commercial headway.)

Nevertheless, the cricket-maths relationship has not always run smooth. Particularly when the cricket is being played by South Africa, and the maths is occurring during a World Cup.

The Proteas' intense and recurrent skirmishes with the mighty mathematics date back to their first World Cup in 1992, when cricket arithmetic went rogue in a soggy semi-final against England. A small splurt of rain towards the end of a taut and evenly contested match brought into operation the rain rule in force during that tournament, a rule now regarded by all serious historians as one of humankind's most idiotic contretemps with the concept of counting.

The heavens opened with South Africa needing a tricky but achievable 22 off 2.1 overs, then closed again after two overs' worth of rain. The rule was applied, and the scoreboard presented South Africa with their revised target: 22 off 0.1 overs - considerably more tricky, and significantly less achievable. (And wrong. Maths had become overexcited at the brilliance of its own hilarious computational prank. The true target was a mere 21 off 1 ball.)

Batsman Brian McMillan disappointingly shunned the opportunity to bat with a medieval sword, musketeer the ball into four quarters, and attempt to smash each section for six. Nor did he try to hit the ball vertically upwards and hope that it lodged on a hovering eagle overhead, long enough for the batsmen to run 21. Instead, he blocked the rather sheepish final delivery in a considerable and justifiable strop.

Brian McMillan disappointingly shunned the opportunity to bat with a medieval sword, musketeer the ball into four quarters, and attempt to smash each section for six

The reborn cricketing nation of South Africa thus had a new nemesis - numbers. The injustice shone out from the giant TV screen like an easily embarrassed burglar at a police identity parade, and one of the great World Cup rivalries had begun.

In 1996 the Proteas managed to fail despite the excellent mathematics of their cricket. They had the second-highest tournament run rate (5.49, behind only eventual champions Sri Lanka), and the best team bowling average (23.57) and economy rate (3.92). They also won a tidy 100% of their group matches.

But then, crucially, they lost 100% of their one quarter-final knockout match, scuttled by a brilliant Brian Lara century and what history suggests was the 0.3% chance of the West Indies spinners taking eight wickets (they have done so only twice in 723 ODIs). South Africa were, on several statistical measures, the best team in the 1996 tournament. Unfortunately, they were joint fifth in the "Most Quarter-Finals Lost" chart.

In 1999, mathematical confusion seemed to scupper Hansie Cronje's team in their momentous semi-final against Australia. One run was needed to win, from four balls. Allan Donald backed up as if he thought one was needed from one ball, and was almost run out. Then Lance Klusener seemed to suffer a similar delusion, exacerbated by deciding that if he managed three-quarters of a run, maths would probably round it up to the match-winning single. Ignoring his own career maths - his average of 52.40 when batting at Nos. 7, 8 or 9 remains the highest by a lower-middle order player in ODIs (minimum 25 innings) - he attempted the risky three-quarter run. Donald, who had learned his lesson, was not backing up. Klusener was almost run out by about a quarter of a run. Instead, Donald was run out by about three-quarters of a run. South Africa "lost their nerve when it really mattered," said the TV commentator. Critically, they also lost their maths.

In 2003, South Africa again suffered the "precipitation plus maths equals disaster" equation, for the second southern-hemisphere World Cup in succession (which does not bode especially well for 2015). In their decisive Pool B match against Sri Lanka, they were defeated not by the pyrotechnics of Sanath Jayasuriya (run out whilst dawdling like a 90-year-old man unsure over whether or not he has put his slippers on), nor by the magical mysteries of Muttiah Muralitharan (1 for 51 off nine overs), but by a titanic tag team of Duckworth, rain, their own batting, cruel cruel Fate, Lewis, and, inevitably, maths.

The rain began to fall, and defeat looked likely. But then Murali speared an ugly wide to the boundary, and Mark Boucher slammed a six. Assuming that play would be sogged off at the end of the over, one run was needed from one ball. At an average run rate of one run per ball. Or six runs per over. Or a strike rate of 100. Unfortunately, after an ill-fated communing with the Duckworth-Lewis calculation sheets, what South Africa thought was needed was no runs from one ball. At a run rate of zero runs per ball. Or nought runs per over. Or a strike rate of 0.00. Boucher securely survived, scoring the no runs he thought were sufficient. Maths disagreed. Another triumph for the numbers, another premature exit for the South Africans.

The Proteas managed to avoid any major contretemps with maths in 2007 through the previously untried tactic of being comprehensively outplayed in their semi-final by the unbeatable Australians. They were McGrathed to pieces in the first 40 minutes, and thus, for the first time, cleverly kept numerical mishap well away from involvement in their World Cup exit.

In 2011, maths itself could not be blamed for the Proteas' defeat to New Zealand in Mirpur. In fact, it was, if anything, another failure to embrace maths that prompted another frantic loss of nerve after Jacques Kallis' rather careless pull ended up in Jacob Oram's hands on the midwicket boundary.

Better call Saul. Or Ghostbusters

Better call Saul. Or Ghostbusters © Getty Images

Nevertheless, almost everything was in South Africa's favour when JP Duminy, with a strong ODI record, came to the wicket to replace the great allrounder. He joined AB de Villiers, who was batting with the timing of the gods at the other end. One hundred and fourteen were required, at 4.4 per over, with seven wickets in hand. Friendly maths. If only they had embraced its friendship.

Understandably, the scars of the past made them wary of accepting that friendship. Perhaps Duminy thought of 2003. Or 1999. Or 1992. Perhaps he allowed his mind to wander to the 2011 Proteas' Achilles leg - an overlong tail - and the fact that the remaining six batsmen had a total of two career ODI half-centuries between them (both by newcomer Faf du Plessis). Perhaps he was worrying about an eBay auction, or trying to remember the US chart position of every single Meat Loaf single in chronological order.

We do not know. What we do know is what he was not thinking: "We need 4.4 per over with seven wickets in hand. No need to panic." After 11 uncertain balls - and now with 101 required, still at 4.4 per over, still with seven wickets in hand, still with de Villiers cruising - Duminy launched an ugly mow at a Nathan McCullum offbreak, missing the ball by approximately the width of a swollen bus.

In came du Plessis. His first ball, he defended "nervously", according to ESPNcricinfo's ball-by-ball commentary. At which point, he failed to think: "Let's do some maths… 101 to win, now at 4.5 per over, with six wickets in hand, and one of the best players in the world at the other end; it's the last ball of the over, so I'll just block it and we'll take it from there." Instead, he seemed to think: "We need one run off one ball. I'm taking a single, whatever."

De Villiers was run out, South Africa subsided, and maths, which had so often been South Africa's enemy, but could on this occasion have been their saviour, was left scratching its head in puzzlement in the score box.

The laws of probability suggest that, at some point, South Africa will conquer their great World Cup foe. Even Andy Roddick finally beat Roger Federer. But the laws of probability would also have suggested that they would not have flunked their chase so inanely in 2011, nor failed to check their working in 2003, nor forgotten that they had two more balls in hand in 1999. The laws of probability would also have been surprised that any sentient human being could have concocted the 1992 rain rule. Such is sport. Such are South African World Cups. Let battle recommence.

Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on BBC Radio 4, and a writer