Herschelle Gibbs's reprieve enables Steve Waugh to play the greatest ODI innings of his life

Steve Waugh on way to his unbeaten 120 against South Africa © Getty Images

On June 13, 1999, Herschelle Gibbs duly dropped the World Cup, as Steve Waugh went on to play the greatest innings of his life. Karthik Parimal looks back in detail at the first of the two greatest One-Day Internationals played that week.

“In a way, the story actually starts at the pre-game meeting. The very last comment came from the king [Shane Warne]: ‘If anyone hits the ball in the air in Herschelle’s direction and he catches you, don’t walk straightaway because he has a habit of “show boating” and he might drop it in the process.’ With a hint of scepticism, someone said, ‘Good point, Warney,’ and the meeting was over,” Steve Waugh

The duel between Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras easily made for one of the greatest tennis rivalries in the Open era. In the 34 times they played each other from 1989 through 2002, Sampras had a 20-14 record over Agassi. People flocked the stands every time the two met, regardless of the round, for these stalwarts always gave a hundred per cent in the confines of the rectangular court. The others did too, but these two individuals operated on a different level.

A similar rivalry had been brewing on the cricket field, this between Australia and South Africa, just as the Agassi-Sampras Era was approaching twilight. Grounds were filled to the brim, even at neutral venues, for cricket of the highest grade was guaranteed. The two sides have been involved in at least four of the finest One-Day Internationals (ODI) ever played till date; the first of it kicked off at the historic Headingley in the Super Six stage of the 1999 World Cup.

The equation

Having lost to Pakistan and New Zealand in the group stages meant that the Australians were standing on thin ice in the Super Six, but victories against India and Zimbabwe provided them enough momentum. A win against South Africa, though, in the last match of that round, was imperative if they were to clinch a berth in the semi-final. On the other hand, the South Africans had already made the cut, but, owing to the complexity of this tournament’s model, were looking to finish above their rivals in the Super Six standings, for there was every possibility their place in the table could be of great significance ahead in the World Cup.

The sombre weather at Headingley greeted both teams.

Herschelle Gibbs puts Australian attack to sword

South African skipper Hansie Cronje won the toss and promptly opted to bat first. Australia’s famed attack was immediately put to test by openers Gary Kirsten and Gibbs. While one consolidated, the other attacked. Kirsten departed after scoring 21, but in Daryll Cullinan, Gibbs found an able partner. A 95-run stand ensued before Cullinan, with a fifty beside his name, succumbed to his nemesis Shane Warne.

Despite the fall of wickets at the other end, Gibbs continued to carve the Australian bowling line-up. Having comprehended the fact that he was in the zone, the process of ‘mental disintegration’ commenced, with lines such as ‘I wonder why Herschelle isn’t in the Test team?’ and ‘I can’t believe he’s not in the Test team — he must be a bit soft’ being exchanged between the fielders within the hearing range of Gibbs. However, on that day, he was timing each ball with an elegance bestowed only upon champions, and nothing could obstruct him. He finished on 101.

Once Gibbs departed, Lance Klusener, the swanky all-rounder, walked in and pummelled a 21-ball 36 to take South Africa’s total to 271. Their bowling department certainly had the firepower to defend it. Things certainly looked bleak for Australia.

Arguably, the greatest World Cup innings

Before this game, Steve Waugh’s position as a captain was beginning to be questioned. Talks surrounding it took a turn for the worse when the Australians put up a mediocre show during the first stage of the World Cup. In fact, Waugh pondered stepping aside. But, what followed went down in the annals of history as the greatest ever two games played by Australia, and perhaps the greatest individual innings in a World Cup.

The Australian top-order floundered as Mark Waugh, Adam Gilchrist and Damien Martyn contributed little. At 48 for three, two of the finest modern-day batsmen — Ricky Ponting and Steve Waugh — occupied the crease. The intent to build a partnership was evident, for risks were completely eliminated. In the next 10 overs, a meagre 22 runs were scored. The Australian supporters were understandably jittery. Nonetheless, the approach was the need of the hour. Soon, both batsmen stepped up a couple of gears and 82 runs were scored from the next 10 overs. The South African fielders were no longer smiling. Both Ponting and Waugh notched fifties, and then, an incident that will continue to haunt Gibbs for the rest of his life followed.

The drop

In the final delivery of the 31st over, Klusener ran in with usual flair and pitched the ball a tad bit full to Waugh, who, batting on 56, in his momentary lapse of concentration, flicked it carelessly towards the on-side. The white leather travelled in the air, approaching one of South Africa’s best fielders in Gibbs, who took it, but, while attempting to celebrate with a customary hurl, lost control and dropped the ball. The laws of cricket clearly state that, in order for a batsman to be given out, the fielder taking the catch must complete it (be in control of the ball). Clearly, that wasn’t the case this time. Cronje, however, argued with the umpires that his fielder did have control over the ball, but Gibbs’s gutted expression failed to conceal the fact that he’d made a mess of it. The bowler, and even the commentators, was flabbergasted.

Waugh, who was as composed as ever, crossed paths mid-pitch after the over with an embarrassed-looking Gibbs and ‘couldn’t resist a jibe’. “’Hey Herschelle,’ I said, ‘do you realise you’ve just cost your team the match?’ My mouth was well ahead of my brain and almost out of control, but I still knew this moment was the turning point of the game,” states Waugh in his autobiography Out of My Comfort Zone.

It was widely reported at the time that Waugh had asked Gibbs ‘how it felt to drop the World Cup?’, but that wasn’t the case. “I wasn’t quite that clever,” Waugh told Australia’s Inside Cricket magazine. “I wish I could claim that and the myth is sort of perpetuated and I’m going to break it a bit but it wasn’t quite that. I just said: ‘Look, do you realise you’ve just cost your team the game?'” In hindsight, it did cost South Africa the game and the World Cup.

An incredible ton

It indeed was a game-changing drop. Waugh punished the South African bowlers thereafter and, on 91, played what he believes was the greatest shot of his career. Steve Elworthy, the opening bowler, steamed in and bowled a full-length delivery, and Waugh, surprising all, employed a slog-sweep. The ball sailed miles over the longest boundary at Leeds. Waugh got himself into an awkward position playing that shot, but the satisfaction on his face was evident. “There are few greater joys than seeing a ball launch off your bat so well that it’s not a question of whether it’s a six but rather how far will it go,” recollects Waugh.

He spared none. Even the fear-inducing Allan Donald was carved mercilessly. A push to the on-side in the 43rd over, off Klusener’s slower delivery, brought up Waugh’s incredible 91-ball century, and although the celebrations weren’t loud, it certainly deserved to be, for an Australian victory now looked inevitable. A minor hiccup ensued when Michael Bevan was the fifth wicket to fall, with 26 runs still needed off 26 balls, but Tom Moody’s calming presence helped Waugh complete the job. He remained unconquered on 120. The Australians not just stormed into the semi-finals, they’d duly arrived. Moreover, the win moved them above South Africa in the Super Six stage, a statistic that would be of utmost importance in the coming days.
There was also newfound respect for Warne’s intuition.

Australian captain Steve Waugh (left) and South African captain Hansie Cronje shake hands at the end of the game before making a dash to the pavilion © Getty Images
Australian captain Steve Waugh (left) and South African captain Hansie Cronje shake hands at the end of the game before making a dash to the pavilion © Getty Images

Brief scores:

South Africa 271 for 7 in 50 overs (Herschelle Gibbs 101, Daryll Cullinan 50; Damien Fleming 3 for 57, Shane Warne 2 for 33) lost to Australia 272 for 5 in 49.4 overs (Steve Waugh 120*, Ricky Ponting 69; Steve Elworthy 2 for 46) by 5 wickets.

(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 )