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5 lesser known events surrounding South Africa epic chase of 438

South Africa won the series 3-2 after their epic run-chase of 438 in the fifth ODI at Johannesburg in 2006 © Getty Images
South Africa won the series 3-2 after their epic run-chase of 438 in the fifth ODI at Johannesburg in 2006 © Getty Images

What transpired on the field during that epic One-Day International (ODI) between Australia and South Africa on March 12, 2006 is widely known. Some amusing incidents, though, which occurred before, during and after the game deserve a mention, and Karthik Parimal duly looks at a few.

It’s referred to as the greatest One-Day International (ODI) ever played, although a few purists will be inclined towards the low-scoring semi-final clash of the 1999 World Cup, too. Nevertheless, in 43 years of limited-overs cricket, whenever Australia and South Africa have stepped into the confines of a ring together, the result has often been a contest to savour. And many a connoisseur of the sport will agree to that.

The lead-up to the Johannesburg game has faded into obscurity, not surprisingly, owing to the splendour of that final match. South Africa won the first two ODIs at Centurion and Cape Town with a comfortable and a gargantuan margin of six wickets and 196 runs respectively. Australia, true to character, resurged with narrow victories at Port Elizabeth and Durban. At 2-2, the series panned out as envisaged by most pundits and, to the delight of the sponsors and the administrators, the last ODI at ‘The Bullring’ drew more spectators than usual.

What transpired once the game commenced, and the exhilarating innings etched by the wizardly willows of batsmen from both sides, is well chronicled. But it’s the incidents, trivial conversations and atmosphere in both dressing-rooms — before, during and after the match — that deserves a mention, for it adds to the charm of the narration.  Below are a few episodes that ensued over this momentous fixture, ones that are amusing, no doubt.

1. Hung-over Herschelle

The Australians and South Africans were put up in the same hotel at Johannesburg — Sandton Sun. Michael Hussey and Nathan Bracken set out for dinner on the night before the match and found a tipsy Herschelle Gibbs with a glass of wine in his hand. When Hussey and Bracken came back three hours later, they noticed Gibbs’s ongoing revelry by the watering-hole. “Just before I went to bed an hour later I looked over the railing outside my hotel room and there he was, still in that spot. At least he was a free wicket,” writes Hussey in his autobiography Underneath the Southern Cross. If only he was as good a clairvoyant as the batsman he was.

Herschelle Gibbs nearly didn't play the game. South Africa would thank their stars that they didn't wield the axe on him before the match © Getty Images
Herschelle Gibbs nearly didn’t play the game. South Africa would thank their stars that they didn’t wield the axe on him before the match © Getty Images

The next morning, the then South African pair of captain and coach, Graeme Smith and Mickey Arthur, was understandably unimpressed when Gibbs turned up half-drunk at the breakfast table. Apparently, he’d snuck into his room only an hour earlier. On the field, Gibbs was adept enough to steer his side out of a mess time and again, but off it, he was equally good, and gullible, at frequently landing himself in hot water. The head honchos were inclined to wielding the axe over Gibbs, but a flatter Wanderers turf and a short boundary at one side begged for his presence in the middle. As some of his fellow team-mates put it, Gibbs made it by the skin of his teeth.

A theory that Smith and Arthur deliberately delayed Gibbs’s inclusion in the side in order to fire him up for the game did rounds, but there’s little evidence to back that up. Should Smith decide to script an autobiography now that he’s retired, a chapter on this incident could make for a riveting read.

2. Humour amidst the hammering

From the outset, the Australians, who won the toss and chose to bat first, clobbered Makhaya Ntini and Andrew Hall at inconceivable angles. By the time Adam Gilchrist departed, the score had galloped close to 100 in 15 overs, but the sight of Ricky Ponting trotting out wasn’t a comforting sight for the crowd either.  And then was etched one of the greatest innings in the history of ODIs. Ponting described it as one of his finest ever knocks, and why shouldn’t it be, for 13 fours and nine sixes collected through hooks, drives and the most nonchalant of pulls were employed during its course. Despite the short boundary at one end, the ball often sailed beyond the fifteenth row of the stand. The size of the ground became inconsequential.

When Ponting and Hussey got together, they treated every bowler, with the exception of Roger Telemachus, with disdain. Three hundred runs were scored by the 40th over. At one point between overs, Gibbs, observing the scoreboard with disbelief, walked over to wicketkeeper Mark Boucher and said: “Bouch, they could get 400 here!” to which the latter casually replied: “Try again, Hersch. Do the math. We’re going to do bloody well to keep them to 400.”

A few South Africans couldn’t help but have a quiet laugh considering their pitiable position. What else could they have done, though? The batsmen were relentless and the bowlers’ attempts futile. Ponting finished on 164, Hussey smashed 81 at a strike-rate of 158 before Andrew Symonds performed the last rites with a 13-ball 27. Australia amassed a world record 434 for four. Never before was it done on the international stage, and some thought the record would stand for a few good years. Who could’ve blamed them?

This was the first time a team crossed 400 in an ODI. South Africa may not have even dreamt of getting close to it, let along chasing it down successfully © Getty Images
This was the first time a team crossed 400 in an ODI. South Africa may not have even dreamt of getting close to it, let along chasing it down successfully © Getty Images

3. The innings break

Australia’s jubilation knew no bounds and their shrieks of joy filtered through the walls of the South African dressing-room, which understandably wore a despondent look at halftime. John Buchanan, Australia’s coach at the time, had predicted a few months prior to this game that his top-order housed the capacity to score over 400 runs in an ODI, and the delight on his face was hard to not notice.

Many empty seats now surfaced and one couldn’t fathom whether the crowd had left to grab a snack, or if they’d left for good. A one-sided contest was inevitable, they must’ve reckoned, like the majority. While the rest of the Australian unit tried hard to place a lid on their glee, Ponting warned his men, saying: “Take the score completely out of it. Let’s pretend we’re defending 200. Don’t think you’ll coast through.” Had the players paid heed, who knows what could’ve transpired?

On the other hand, the South Africans were visibly shaken. When Arthur was asked to devise a plan to knock down the total, he could only say, with a hint of sarcasm, of course: “Sure. A plan to chase 434 — I’ve done loads of those.” It wasn’t until Jacques Kallis, with a straight face, chipped in with words to the effect of “OK, 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,” that the other players came out of their shells.

“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,” writes Boucher in his autobiography Bouch: Through My Eyes.

4.The faint-hearted never f***ed a fair maiden”

Was it a bold move on the part of Smith and Arthur to include Gibbs despite his antics, or could they really not afford to drop him, for few can replicate his brute force? Whatever ensued during the process of decision-making, Smith should thank his lucky stars for not booting Gibbs out (albeit it would have been justified). If there’s one batsman who could have taken South Africa close to the vicinity of 434, it was Gibbs. Not Smith, not Kallis, but Gibbs.

His knock of 175 (21 fours, seven sixes) is well documented in several articles and opinion pieces, but what a few protagonists on the field felt during the process of pulverisation needs a mention. Sadly for Ponting, South Africa went past 200 in the 24th over, with eight wickets still in hand.

“The scary thing was, the comparisons kept going up on the board, and they [South Africa] were always 15 or 20 runs ahead of us. Batting without any hope of winning was such a dangerous thing. They had complete freedom. I thought, ‘far out, they’re going to win easily’,” writes Hussey in his book.

“As the runs still flowed and as a home-town win started to look more likely than not a sense of stress came over me as captain that I’d never felt before. I had nowhere to turn, and having grown more and more exasperated with all the mistakes that we had committed, I dreaded the idea of making one myself,” states Ponting in his autobiography At the Close of Play.

Makahaya Ntini (left) and Mark Boucher celebrate after the latter hit the winning runs. With one to get off the last ball, Boucher was in two minds but backed his attacking instinct and smashed it for four © Getty Images
Makahaya Ntini (left) and Mark Boucher celebrate after the latter hit the winning runs. With one to get off the last ball, Boucher was in two minds but backed his attacking instinct and smashed it for four © Getty Images

Boucher took over the mantle after Gibbs’ exit. The Australians were massacred, but there was life left, and when the South Africans needed 100 off the last 13 overs, apprehension set in, for victory was now within reach. While the runs kept coming, wickets continually fell, until Ntini was the last to walk in. Most South African players swore that day that their premier bowler turned white with fear. “Seriously, I was watching a black man turn white. I walked over to meet him and his eyes were all over the place,” recollects Boucher.

Memories of the Lance Klusener-Allan Donald fiasco on that overcast day in the summer of 1999 came flooding back, but Ntini managed to steer Brett Lee down to fine leg on the first ball for a single to level the scores. As he ran past Boucher, he let out a loud scream, one that was, by all means, a mixture of relief and happiness.

The ever-dependable Boucher was now in a position to score the winning runs as his mind fluctuated between an aggressive shot (since the field was up to save the single) and a defensive nudge into the gap. And then, just seconds before Lee steamed toward the crease, the fog lifted. “We’ve played this whole game in such an aggressive and fearless way, why am I now getting all this other crap in to my head,” thought Boucher, which he duly writes in his book. “’Commit to it 100 per cent because the faint-hearted never fu**ed a fair maiden’. That was my final thought.”

The next moment, the ball went flying over Lee’s head as South Africa achieved the unimaginable. Ntini was ecstatic, and so were the rest who tumbled out of the pavilion to join the two batsmen in the middle. There were tears, not just in the eyes of the players, but in the stands as well — a rare sight away from the emotional confines of the sub-continent.


5. Turned tables

The South Africans were now part of a boisterous dressing room, popping open champagne and beer bottles, whereas the Australians’ represented a graveyard, the deafening silence only interrupted by Ponting’s kicking and throwing of chairs. The bowlers copped an earful from their captain. Some Australian players took solace from the fact that they were part of what was arguably the greatest ODI ever, but Ponting was having none of it.

Once the emotions settled, the two teams met for a few beers in the change rooms before reconvening in Sandton Sun’s bar. Gibbs resumed from where he left off. Ponting, however, didn’t think he deserved a beer after the outcome and refrained from sipping one throughout the duration of the after-party.  “Is this being a bad loser? I think I would argue that it was the reaction of someone who didn’t like bad losses. I never took a defeat in a one-day game harder. We’d lost the unlosable match. If being so distraught and pissed off means I’m not a cricket romantic, then I plead guilty,” Ponting writes in his autobiography.

As for Boucher, the physical and emotional exhaustion, not to forget the generous intake of alcohol, led to his falling asleep in the hotel elevator. He was eventually helped to the room by the bowler he thwacked for winning runs in the final over — Lee. Can there ever be a better game, or a better set of players?

(Karthik Parimal, a Correspondent with CricketCountry, is a cricket aficionado and a worshipper of the game. He idolises Steve Waugh and can give up anything, absolutely anything, just to watch a Kumar Sangakkara cover drive. He can be followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/karthik_parimal)

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