Mark Boucher hits the winning runs

Mark Boucher seals the deal on the fifth ball of the 50th over

© Getty Images

20 Greatest ODIs: No. 2

The maximum game

The 438 ODI was like no other before it, and remains astounding even in an age of gigantic scores

Firdose Moonda  |  

South Africa vs Australia, Johannesburg, 2006

South Africa won by one wicket

Batting strike rates of more than 150. Scoring rates greater than 8.5 an over. Bowling economies that don't dip below 7. In 2023, these are considered ordinary occurrences in cricket, especially in T20I cricket. But in March 2006, when only six T20Is had been played globally, numbers like that were eye-popping - not least because they came in an ODI.

Australia were touring South Africa - a contest that typically brings out the best and worst in both teams - and the five-match ODI series was locked at two-all. The decider would take place at the Wanderers, where the crowd is known for being expectant and rowdy in equal measure.

I was among them, sort of, having begun a student job as a cricket scorer two summers before. By then I was a regular in the Wanderers scorers' box for domestic matches and had done a handful of internationals. For this game, from memory, I was taking scoresheets between the main scorebox and the press box and making sure they added up. My exact recollections are vague but tense matches are often like that. A box-set of three DVDs was brought out in May that year, consisting of the full game, highlights packages and interviews for anyone who wants to relive every single minute of the action and its aftermath, but watching the game over again doesn't quite hit the same. The beauty of big matches lies mainly in the moment itself, even if all you remember afterwards is a blur of colour, noise and emotion. That's what the 438 game was.

There was an understandable awe at the way Australia approached their innings on a batting track, in conditions that were manna from heaven. A quick, flat pitch, a speedy outfield, and altitude of 1750 metres above sea level combined with an intent not seen before in the ODI game to produce the highest total in an ODI. At least until the end of that day.

Adam Gilchrist and Simon Katich put on 97 for the first wicket in 92 balls. Gilchrist's drives were the highlight of that stand. South Africa may have been relieved when he mistimed a shot off Roger Telemachus and Andrew Hall held on to a good catch at mid-on, but only temporarily. The dismissal brought Ricky Ponting to the crease and he was in the mood to do damage. He started slowly, with no runs off his first six balls and just 11 off the first 18 deliveries he faced. By then, things were getting heated. Ponting and South Africa's captain, Graeme Smith, exchanged irritations at the end of the 19th over and Ponting responded by flicking Telemachus through the leg side for four first ball of the 19th.

The beauty of big matches lies mainly in the moment itself, even if all you remember afterwards is a blur of colour, noise and emotion. That's what the 438 game was

Smith himself bowled the next over. It was a time when he was starting to use himself as an extra spin option; he had bowled a full quota of ten overs in three games that summer. Ponting glanced the third ball for four. Smith delivered three more overs and ended up as South Africa's most economical bowler on the day, but everyone else was taken apart.

South Africa leaned heavily on their default length - short - which Ponting latched on to. He reached fifty with successive sixes off Jacques Kallis, off 43 balls. Then, after his 119-run partnership with Katich was broken that Australia went wild. Ponting and Mike Hussey put on 158 runs at not far from two runs a ball. By the time he made 150, off 98 balls, Ponting seemed unstoppable. Legend has it that at one point Herschelle Gibbs told Mark Boucher South Africa would be chasing 400 and Boucher replied that they'd do well if that was all they ended up conceding. South Africa leaked 53 runs in the last three overs. Telemachus delivered four consecutive no-balls and finished with 2 for 87 - which were nowhere near the most expensive bowling figures from the game.

South Africa left the field shell-shocked after Australia reached heights they were not sure were possible. "It's really interesting because we had our coach, John Buchanan, telling us at the time that our team was going to score 400 in a one-day game," Ponting said to the Cricket Monthly nine years later. "Every time he brought it up in a meeting we would look around at each and think, 'Is this bloke for real or what?' Because 300 was a big score even then. If you got 300, you didn't lose too many."

Before this game, the highest ODI total was Sri Lanka's 398 for 5 against Kenya at the 1996 World Cup, which was a mismatch of the highest order, and the highest successful chase was New Zealand's 332 for 8 against Australia in December 2005. There had only been 17 successful chases of 300 or more in ODI cricket's 35-year history then. The idea of reaching 435 seemed ludicrous. Nobody believed it could be done.

At club grounds around the country there were reports of wagers being taken on how big South Africa's margin of defeat would be. At the Wanderers the players themselves were preparing to be beaten. Boucher in his autobiography recalled how coach Mickey Arthur didn't even try to issue instructions. The mood was sombre "until Jacques Kallis, with a straight face, chipped in with words to the effect of 'Okay, guys, I think the bowlers have done their job. Now it's up to the batsmen. They're 15 runs short; this is a 450-wicket," Boucher wrote. "Suddenly there was a lot of laughter and plenty of swearing, but at least it wasn't bottled up inside. We had nothing to lose. What the hell -- let's give it a go. Before that moment, I don't believe anybody would have even talked about trying to win. It seemed too ridiculous."

Ricky Ponting made his highest ODI score, 164, only to see it trumped and his team lose

Ricky Ponting made his highest ODI score, 164, only to see it trumped and his team lose Hamish Blair / © Getty Images

Boeta Dippenaar played Nathan Bracken onto his stumps off the ninth ball of the reply, which gave South Africa exactly the start they needed. Gibbs was in at No. 3, still somewhat hungover from his previous night's exploits: in his autobiography five years later, he revealed he drank all night in the hotel bar and returned to his room about an hour before he was expected to board the team bus.

He played like he had nothing to lose. Smith initially outscored Gibbs and was on 45 off 26 balls, compared to Gibbs' 43 off 41, but with Australia's attack missing their lengths, Gibbs soon caught up. He reached fifty first, and then Smith overtook him again. The partnership seemed like something of a battle between the two to see who could play more outrageously. Their driving was exquisite, and in Gibbs' case, belied his poorly state.

Today, if a player did the kind of thing Gibbs did the night before the game, he'd almost certainly be dropped and more than likely disciplined. Gibbs got none of that treatment. In hindsight, allowing him to play was a masterstroke, albeit not one that set a good example for sportspeople who over-indulge.

Smith was dismissed on 90 but Gibbs went on to bring up his hundred off 79 balls and 150 at Ponting speed. "Once I got my hundred, I told myself I was going to enjoy the moment of being in the middle and just try to hit every ball I could for six," Gibbs said this May, looking back at the innings.

He hit four of his seven sixes after he reached his hundred and ten of his 21 fours, so even though the biggest shots didn't always come off, he found the boundary regularly. More than the numbers, Gibbs gave an increasingly enthusiastic home crowd hope, and then belief, that South Africa could win. When he was dismissed, they still needed 136 runs off 109 balls, and he showed them it was possible.

Gibbs' was the first of three wickets that South Africa lost in the space of 56 runs. They needed to score at ten an over off the last eight, with Mark Boucher and the tail to come. They lost Justin Kemp right away in the first of those overs. Then Johan van der Wath hit Mick Lewis for two sixes in an over that cost 16 runs. He proceeded to take 11 runs off three Bracken deliveries, while Boucher rotated the strike. South Africa needed 47 runs off the last five. Van der Wath's innings provided the cameo to keep momentum but when he was dismissed, Boucher had to take control.

In his autobiography five years later, Gibbs revealed he drank all night in the hotel bar and returned to his room about an hour before he was expected to board the team bus

He scored 11 runs off Lewis' final over, which saw the bowler finish with 0 for 113, still the most expensive spell in ODI history. Telemachus scored 12 off six before he holed out to give Bracken a five-for, but just enough had been done. Boucher and Hall took South Africa within two runs of victory in the final over before Hall was out caught, and Makhaya Ntini, South Africa's No. 11, walked in.

Two needed off three balls.

And then Ntini took the most celebrated single in ODI history, off a nurdle to third man, that left Boucher on strike with one needed to win.

He duly drove Brett Lee through mid-on to kick off crazy celebrations at the crease, in the crowd, and all around the country.

Was the game forever changed? "I'm not sure," Gibbs said, on reflection. "But what we did do was get the basics right with regards to partnerships at the right time while chasing down the total. I'm sure it's given other teams in general the belief that anything is possible if you get the basics right under the most extreme pressure."

No other team has since chased a total over 375. There are only five ODI totals higher than 438, and of the 23 totals over 400 since that game, seven have been scored by South Africa. So if anything, it changed them and provided memories for a lifetime.

Herschelle Gibbs:

Herschelle Gibbs: "Once I got my hundred, I told myself I was going to enjoy the moment of being in the middle and just try to hit every ball I could for six" © Getty Images

"It was a privilege. To be part of it was the cherry on top," Gibbs said. "You won't see another game like it in our lifetime, especially with such big totals. It really was the best ODI ever played."

It took Ponting some time to see it that way. In the immediate aftermath he was "the most angry I've ever been walking off the field at the end of the day, and I let everyone know when we got into the change rooms - coaching staff, management, everyone - how I was feeling about what just happened", he said. "Because it wasn't just the fact that we lost the game - that game decided the whole series. We played so well for the first half of the game and embarrassed ourselves in the second half."

Nine years later, he was able to have "fond memories of games like that", he said. "You watch the highlights and it's just remarkable how both teams could strike the ball so well and so cleanly for so long. It was a great game."

The Wanderers has since branded itself "home of the greatest ODI ever played", and done its bit to keep memories of the 438 game alive. A few years after the match, they released limited edition T-shirts with the scorecard of the match printed on the front. The only problem was that Roger Telemachus' name was too long and was shortened to Telemacus (H is a wide letter which takes up plenty of space). Either that or it was misspelled and no one wanted to admit the error.

There is a newly renovated 438 Bar, at the back of the Unity stand. Decorated with the wooden seats from the old open stand (it remains an open stand with new seating) and with 438 emblazoned onto the entrance, it is the most popular watering hole at the stadium, and a tribute to the legacy of a match like no other. Cheers to that.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's correspondent for South Africa and women's cricket