Steve Waugh punches the air after leading Australia to victory during the Super Six encounter against South Africa in the ICC World Cup 1999 © Getty Images
Steve Waugh punches the air after leading Australia to victory during the Super Six encounter against South Africa in the ICC World Cup 1999 © Getty Images

June 13, 1999. Australia had to win, and by the 12th over of their reply South Africa had them on the ropes. The splendid duo of Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting fought back, and Herschelle Gibbs celebrated too early. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the day that saw an incredible thriller that set up a rip-roaring semi final between the same two sides.

Prophecy

It is rumoured that Shane Warne had predicted it the night before the match. He had warned his teammates not to tuck their bats under their armpits and start the long walk back if it was Herschelle Gibbs who got under the ball. The ace spinner had not been taken seriously, but he had supposedly continued, adding that Gibbs, exceptional fielder that he was, had the habit of chucking the ball in the air before he had quite completed the catch.

Australia had lost twice in the first round, to Pakistan and New Zealand. It meant that they had to win everything in sight in the Super Sixes, even against the mighty South Africans, to proceed to the semis. Such was the strangeness of the format.

And that very Gibbs had taken it almost beyond their reach when the Proteas had batted first at Headingley. With clean hits finding the fence often and once clearing long-off, the young man had blasted his way to a memorable century; short-term memory, at least. The recollections were soon to be marred and darkened by that cardinal error in the field.

Warne had followed up his astute tactical insights with his favourite pastime of baiting Darryl Cullinan. The stylish middle-order man had struck the ball fluently for 50, but Warne had come on and made him look silly. He had spun past the slog-sweep to hit the stumps, leaving the batsman in follow-through some miles away from the ball. In the same over he had sent another one past another attempted slog-sweep and trapped captain Hansie Cronje leg before for a duck.

But Gibbs had continued on his brilliant march, Jonty Rhodes had hit out merrily , clearing the fence twice, and Lance Klusener had pulverised the attack with his another of his famed finishes. The ball had disappeared once too often during the last few overs. A decent enough Damien Fleming delivery ended up way over long off after the massive Klusener bat had swung with might and precision. The left-handed all-rounder ended with a 21-ball 36 and South Africa had 271 on the board by the end of their innings. Quite an imposing target for a crunch pressure encounter.

Rebuilding from the Rubble

The Australian start had been nigtmarish. Steve Elworthy had sent Adam Gilchrist’s stumps cartwheeling. Mark Waugh had responded late to Ponting’s call and had ended short by a yard. And after Ponting had counter-attacked with two pulled sixes, one of them off a spiralling top-edge, Damien Martyn had made a hash of another pull stroke.

At 48 for three in the 12th over, the Aussies had their backs to the wall. Captain Steve Waugh strode in, with his team’s fate on the line and his own captaincy under severe criticism. There was Ian Chappell, eager as ever from the air-conditioned comfort of the commentary box, licking his lips and waiting for the merest whiff of failure.

Waugh did not hold back. After a few deliveries of circumspection, he launched into aggressive counter attack. Klusener was hammered back with fierce power, lofted back over his head and flicked to the mid-wicket boundary. Allan Donald was slashed over cover point, Shaun Pollock smashed through the covers. And Nicky Boje was dispatched in trademark style, down on the knee and swung away over the cow corner.

All the while, Ponting was building his innings. With his captain showing the way, he picked up back-to-back boundaries off the nagging Cronje.  He brought up his half-century, a patient affair of 88 balls. Waugh got there a couple of overs later, off just 47 deliveries. The score read 149 for three off 30 overs. Both batsmen were set, and both were great enough players to finish the match. The partnership had swung the game in Australia’s favour.

Premature celebration

And then arrived the moment of the match.

Klusener pitched on the legs, Waugh flicked without control. It struck the edge of the bat, lobbed to mid-wicket. Gibbs was there. The ball landed safely in his hands. His eyes lit up in elation and he tried to throw it up in unrestrained celebration. And the ball slipped, shot forward and fell harmlessly a few feet in front of him in a tepid arc. The catch had been spilled.

One of the best fielders of the day stood transfixed, at a loss for words. Waugh, however, had a lot to say. “I hope you realise that you’ve just lost the game for your team.” Or was it, “Son, you’ve just dropped the World Cup”? Versions vary. Anyway, the words were along these lines and meant to sting. And so did the rest of the innings that followed from the Australia captain’s celebrated blade.

In the following Klusener over, Waugh flicked again, this time with precision, and found the boundary. Another neat placement behind square leg off Cronje brought the target below 100. With the asking rate just about a run a ball and seven wickets in the bank, the Australians were the clear favourites.

But not for long: Klusener pitched up and Ponting tried to flick over the infield, sending a monstrous skier down the throat of mid-on. A timely strike. The balance restored.

However, the new man was Michael Bevan, the accomplished finisher. Runs were stolen at will and boundaries found almost every over. Elworthy was brought back and Waugh creamed him over mid-wicket. Donald was thrown the ball to get the desperate breakthrough and the skipper crashed him through the covers.

And when a couple of tidy overs shifted the equation in favour of the Proteas, Waugh bent down on his knees and scythed Elworthy over mid-wicket for six.

Klusener ran in again, and Waugh hit him twice, through mid-wicket, and sprinted twos. The bat was raised in elation, cheers broke across Headingley. It had been one of the most splendid World Cup centuries in just 91 deliveries.

The Aussie approach was almost clinical by now. Bevan was finding the runs with ease, Waugh with panache. The left hander lofted Cronje over mid-off for a boundary to take Australia closer. And with 25 needed off 27, he turned the South African captain into the hands of Cullinan at mid-wicket.

The finish

But by now it was just a minor hiccup. At the other end, Waugh was determined to finish it. And the new man, Tom Moody, swung his bat with abandon and found the boundary off Donald. It was down to 18 off 22, when Donald fired in four deliveries of deadly accuracy. Moody could not get them away. The equation was balanced yet again.

In ran Pollock, keeping it exceedingly tight, and the batsmen managed just three off the over. It was 15 required off 12, and the pendulum was swinging once again.

Donald ran in and sent down an inexcusable no-ball. But by now Waugh was feeling the effects of a long innings. The ball was hit to the outfield, and he did not have enough wind to come back for the second.

Donald tore in and pitched outside off, dangerously distant from the bat. Waugh waited for the umpire to signal wide. He kept waiting, a frown etching his brow. The hands remained steadfastly unspread.

Donald turned for the final delivery. Waugh made room and lofted him over cover. The fielder on the boundary did not attempt the catch, lest the ball squeeze through for four. The throw came in and two were taken. Seven resulted from the over. Eight to score off the final six deliveries. Shaun Pollock had the ball.

The first was on target. Moody somehow jammed it out, it went through mid-off. The two batsmen ran like crazy. The throw came in, wider than one would have wished for. Six remained to be scored off five.

Pollock turned, head full of flaming red hair, and pitched on the off. Moody threw his bat at it in an expansive drive. It went off the splice through the infield, fielders running after it, the batsmen scuttling to and fro like madmen. And it rolled over the un-patrolled off-side boundary. Australia needed two to win off four. Even a single would enable them to qualify.

In came Pollock again. Moody stopped the ball, it dropped near his feet, and the two ran. Waugh reached the other end and his straining fists punched the air. Australia were through.

However, a run remained to be scored and a match to be won. It did not come convincingly, but the Australians took it with glee. The bottom edge was far too wide for the keeper to get around in time. Waugh had deservingly scored the winning run.

He remained unbeaten on a magnificent 120, scored from 110 balls with two sixes and 10 fours. It was a century against the odds, as perfect a captain’s innings as ever played.

Almost perfect that is… there was the moment when the match was almost lost, the ball almost in the grasp of Herschelle Gibbs. And in his elation, the Western Province man had thrown away the match, and with it perhaps the tournament.

Brief Scores

South Africa 271 for 7 in 50 overs (Herschelle Gibbs 101, Darryl Cullinan 50, Jonty Rhodes 39, Lance Klusener 36; Damien Fleming 3 for 57 ) lost to Australia 272 for 5 in 49.4 overs (Ricky Ponting 69, Steve Waugh 120*) by 5 wickets