Allan Donald runs past Lance Klusener

That moment when your fears turn into reality: Australia run-out Allan Donald, tie the game, and make it to their second World Cup final

© PA Photos

20 Greatest ODIs: No. 3

Edgbaston is the sensation that never goes away

A game full of glory, which, if it belonged to the performing arts, would probably slot as tragedy

Rahul Bhattacharya  |  

Australia vs South Africa, World Cup semi-final, Birmingham, 1999

Match tied

Look, an unimprovable game has already had an unimprovable memorialisation. This is where you should read Rob Smyth's reconstruction, which really should come with trigger warnings. For the sake of getting on with things here, however, let us quickly recapitulate what happened that day in Birmingham.

The ground was full, the weather was fine, the line-ups were superb, the jerseys, asymmetrical counterpoints of green on gold and gold on green, were perfect. Here and there Skippy the kangaroo bounced about with a joie de vivre that belied the tight, taut game of cricket shaping up, from the moment Hansie Cronje stuck his opponents in and Shaun Pollock, long antelopean strides, caught Mark Waugh's elegant wrist for a wicket fourth ball. The innings slumped to 68 for 4, was carefully revived by Michael Bevan's and Steve Waugh's fifties, before Pollock and Allan Donald returned to bowl Australia out in the final over, finishing with nine wickets between them. The total was 213, the kind about which you can never tell - not a booby trap like 183, not speculative fiction like 434: a total that left everyone just a little uneasy.

In response, Herschelle Gibbs, lovely fluency, fresh from a century against Australia, eased South Africa to 43 in ten overs. Then Shane Warne came on. In his second over Warne produced a delivery of gargantuan drift and colossal turn from far outside leg stump, leaving Gibbs, a man rarely off balance at the crease, stuttering a half-step towards a mirage, oblivious to his dislodged off bail - I mean how could it even, from there? In his next over, Warne bowled Gary Kirsten through a dreadful slog-sweep - again, the mind-bending drift hardly made it a straightforward delivery to judge - and two balls later had Cronje caught at slip (or umpire David Shepherd did, since it was off boot not bat). With Bevan's direct hit to run out Daryll Cullinan, for a tortuous 6 off 30 balls, South Africa had gone from 48 for 0 in the 13th over to 61 for 4 in the 22nd, and Warne's first six overs had gone for four maidens, five runs and three wickets.

As Waugh and Bevan had done, Jonty Rhodes, sprightly as his name, and Kallis, solid as his reputation, consolidated for the fifth wicket. When Lance Klusener appeared, a bit of Leo Di Caprio about him, and a bit of Clint Eastwood in how he had mowed down the fastest and craftiest bowlers to size all tournament, South Africa needed 39 from 31 deliveries. Over the first 30 of those runs, the match oscillated with tremendous force: genius bludgeons, clattered stumps, run-out, avuncular drop-turned-six, until there remained nine to win from the last over with a single wicket in hand.

So powerful was the catastrophe that it left an outsize mark. Fifteen years after the event, Daryll Cullinan would remember the match as "the birth of the chokers tag"

It seems both impolite and superfluous to describe what happened next. In brief, Klusener smashed two fours off Damien Fleming's first two balls. On the third, Darren Lehmann missed a chance to run-out Donald. On the fourth, Klusener dug out a yorker to mid-off and ran, Donald turned to watch and did not, the fielded ball reached the non-striker's end almost at the same time as Klusener, and now Donald did run, dropping his bat, not as a tactic but because these things happen, and so did Klusener keep running… running… into the future.

Australia had only made it to the semi-final because they beat South Africa in the last match of Super Sixes round at Headingley four days earlier. In doing so they had finished ahead of South Africa on the Super Sixes table by 0.184 points on net run rate. Now on meeting South Africa in the semi-final, they had tied it. It is said that in knockout contests the past ceases to exist; what matters is the day. But the deciding parameter at Edgbaston had nothing to do with the match on the day at all. On the strength of those 0.184 points in the previous round, Australia were through and South Africa were out.

There ended the tied semi-final of 1999, and there it began.

Possibly no game of cricket has had quite the kind of afterlife as this one. It cannot be commemorated like the tied Test of Brisbane 1960, a glorious celebration of glorious performances and glorious uncertainties and glorious spirit, glorious glory all around. If Edgbaston 1999 belonged to the performing arts, it would probably slot as tragedy.

This is not even the case with the tied final of the 2019 World Cup, whose end lingers instead like some horrendous administrative dystopia - tragedy restaged as farce. Kane Williamson, New Zealand's captain, found himself apologising for cracking jokes the next day. There was that too: Williamson and his equanimity casting light. Cronje and his intensity cast a whole different shadow. It was a whole different life. Williamson, two years on from Lord's 2019, was lifting the World Test Championship mace in the same country. A year after Edgbaston 1999, Cronje was breaking down in a courtroom confessing to selling matches and his team-mates; two years on from that, he was dead at 32.

Michael Bevan was the top scorer of the match, making 65 and adding 90 runs with Steve Waugh

Michael Bevan was the top scorer of the match, making 65 and adding 90 runs with Steve Waugh © Getty Images

Like an unfortunate event whose grief gets more complex with age, so it is with South Africa and Edgbaston. Pollock watching the rain in Durban in 2003, the mid-innings meltdown of Mirpur 2011, or the Steyn and de Villiers heartbreak of Auckland 2015 - without Edgbaston 1999, none of those encounters would feel quite as they did, and each of those makes Edgbaston what it is. Edgbaston is the sensation that never goes away.

My own spectating experience of the match has deepened over the years. Back then I did not think it was even the best South Africa vs Australia match of the week. Headingley, after all, had the euphoria of a great match without the bitter aftertaste. I was at that match, a young traveller at the World Cup, young enough to be in thrall of all things Steve Waugh, and to watch the rematch, I sold my ticket for the first semi-final, featuring Pakistan, to a Pakistani student at the University of Nottingham, where I stayed in a friend's room, and with the proceeds went out to Birmingham on match morning and bought a ticket from a tout, and ended the day an angsty participant in South Africa's woes.

Nearly 25 years later, Headingley has shrunk somewhat to scale; the immensity of Edgbaston has grown. For lasting effect, it is hard to outdo the finale: Klusener's startling fours, Donald stranded alone in the convergence of jubilant canary jerseys before turning towards his fallen bat, the running Klusener momentarily glancing back to confirm what he already knew before handing himself over to the care of a security guard for protection against "pitch invasions", to employ the slightly overwrought term much in use that summer. If Headingley felt momentous, Edgbaston felt tumultuous. All was confusion and all was crystal clear. I doubt even the most partisan of supporters were free of mixed feelings.

"Tragedy," wrote Aristotle, "is a representation not of persons but of action and life, happiness and unhappiness; and happiness and unhappiness consist in action, the end being action, not a quality. Men are of one kind or another according to their character, happy or unhappy according to their actions: we do not therefore act in order to represent character but include character on account of the action, so that the incidents and the plot are the end of the Tragedy, and the end is the most important thing."

That is one way to apprehend the Edgbaston drama: not as some means of character evaluation but as a piece of action where particular vulnerabilities may have nevertheless influenced events.

Kane Williamson, two years on from Lord's 2019, was lifting the World Test Championship mace in the same country. A year after Edgbaston 1999, Cronje was breaking down in a courtroom confessing to selling matches and his team-mates

Certainly this is what Steve Waugh and his team seemed to have been banking on, going by his points for the team meeting before the match reproduced in his captain's diary for the summer. "Believe you can achieve anything." "Put pressure on them - they will crack." "Keep wearing them down - they'll crack before us!"

Just in case the exclamation point left any doubt about what the Australians believed about themselves in relation to their opponents, consider two lines from the motivational verses their fitness advisor Dave Misson drafted for the game:

Pressure is the key, it will win us the day.
Because we embrace it, they'll crumble under its weight

In fact, as Rob Smyth shows, there was no such dichotomy at Edgbaston; there rarely is. It can be argued that South Africa would have known, at some point, that they had to get ahead of Australia not just draw level. Be that as it may, the team performances were so equal that they could not even be split at the level of wickets lost (once upon a time this used to be a deciding parameter) and differed in terms of balls faced by just two. They were tied on boundary count, down to the break-up of fours and sixes! Whatever hold the Australians may have had over South Africa was subtle and marginal.

Yet so powerful was the catastrophe - used here not in the sense of disaster, but as "denouement of a drama" - that it left an outsize mark. Fifteen years after the event, Daryll Cullinan would remember the match as "the birth of the chokers tag. And that was a genuine choke".

The turbulence of the day is described most vividly in a chapter of remarkable candour in his autobiography, White Lightning, by Donald, a great fast bowler, and certainly a handy second-change seamer, who took 4 for 32 in the match, lest we forget.

Lance Klusener had been South Africa's lynchpin all through the World Cup, although today is he often remembered for the one ill-fated moment at the end of the semi-final

Lance Klusener had been South Africa's lynchpin all through the World Cup, although today is he often remembered for the one ill-fated moment at the end of the semi-final Adrian Murrell / © Getty Images

Wracked by nerves, he spent 33 overs of the innings away from all his team-mates, in the fourth umpire's room. All kinds of questions raced through his mind. "What if it came down to me, with Lance helpless at the other end?" "How would I remember where all the fielders were?" "How do I get Klusener on strike when all the gaps are plugged?" He dreaded having to bat, and when it appeared he had to, he couldn't remember anything said to him as he left the dressing room. Out in the middle he was awestruck by the calm of Klusener; awe turned into ecstasy on the second of those astonishing last-over fours: "What an amazing shot - what nerve!" At the fateful moment, however, "my legs felt like jelly, as though I wasn't making any headway at all"; it was "a dreamlike sequence, almost in slow motion", until "the Aussies fell into each others' arms and my world just fell apart". Donald describes the stunned and teary dressing room, Klusener and he repeatedly trying to absolve one another; the guilt at facing fans "who had paid so much to come over and see me throw it away with one moment of panic"; the insomnia; the fortnight off county duty because of his emotional state in this "nightmare summer in England", plagued further by injury; the loop-watching of that run out in a bid to overcome it, the replays telling him that it was "the sort of thing you see on the village green every Sunday. Not in a World Cup semi-final, featuring a guy who has played for his country for more than a decade."

In the light of this baring, moving piece of memoir, it is poignant to revisit the previous edition of the same book. That edition of White Lightning ends on the cusp of the World Cup, and Chapter 20 is not titled "Just One Run!" but "What Next?"

Here Donald is full of sweet, guarded optimism and calibrated positivity. Every sentence feels weighted with the awful irony of what was to come. He talks with feeling about Warwickshire and Birmingham, "my second home", and wonders: "When I return to Edgbaston, will I be showing the lads my World Cup winner's medal?" He lists ten reasons why South Africa can lift the trophy ("8. Intensity on the field. It's ingrained in the South African mentality - 'you WILL win' - and although that sometimes rebounds on us, tensing us up, we do have a massive competitive instinct.") Having built up a strong case, he qualifies it: "One-day cricket is such a lottery and it can all blow up in your face in the period of just a few overs. The side that stays fit, plays professional percentage cricket, and has a bit of luck will be very difficult to beat. I think Australia have an excellent chance." He is wary of the favourites tag and above all, of getting ahead of himself: "I'd prefer us to advance quietly through the qualifying stage, peaking at the right time. If we can get to the semi-finals, then I'll start to dream about that winner's medal." At this point, a retrospective reader wishes harder than the South Africa coach Bob Woolmer that his Sliding Doors fantasy for the game could be reality.

But of course we, the audience, and the players better than us, know how the film turns out.

Twenty years after the game, Klusener told Sidharth Monga for the Cricket Monthly that the video plays all the time and it does not bother him: "I have seen the movie before. I made the movie." As pithy as his "Nobody died" at the time. A consummate finisher with word and bat.

Gibbs, the most insouciant member of that side, with little time for pedantry, had his own style of summary in his book. "The way in which we'd lost that semi-final was just - excuse my language - f***ing tragic".

That even a thwarted player in that cruel, great, unbearable, unforgettable tie records it as a lost match - that's how effing tragic.

Rahul Bhattacharya is the author of the cricket tour book Pundits from Pakistan and the novel The Sly Company of People Who Care