Australian players celebrate after defeating West Indies in 1996 World Cup semi-final © Getty Images
Australian players celebrate after defeating West Indies in 1996 World Cup semi-final © Getty Images

March 14, 1996. In a riveting and weird World Cup semi-final showdown at Mohali, West Indies dominated the entire match except when it mattered the most. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the thriller that saw Australia clinch an almost impossible victory.

Wisden recorded:  “West Indies pulled off an extraordinary defeat.”

Indeed there was hardly a better way to describe the hysterical absurdity which ran amok in the West Indian batting for the final 50 minutes. Like a sorcerer’s stone the short phase of madness converted  an almost dream end to Richie Richardson’s captaincy days into an everlasting nightmare.

The Calypso cricketers had ruled the World Cup semi-final showdown for 91 overs. They had required 43 from the last 9, with 8 wickets in hand. Shivnarine Chanderpaul was looking impregnable at one end, Richardson himself calm and composed at the other.

And then the Australians lit the last ditch flame of their resistance, and like a swarm of moths the Caribbean batsmen flapped their way to self-immolation.

A rout avoided

In fact, they should have wrapped it up way way before the 91-over mark when things fell apart. On a Mohali pitch of uneven bounce, and an outfield that sucked the life off the most sprightly of strokes, Australia had almost lost the match in the first 40 minutes. When Steve Waugh had his stumps disturbed by Ian Bishop, it had been 4 down for just 15 in the eighth over.

The elder Waugh, who walked back with 3 runs against his name, had stayed at the wicket longer than the three men who had preceded him. He had also outscored the three of them put together.

His twin Mark had opened the innings and been trapped plumb on the backfoot by the second delivery from Curtly Ambrose. In the fourth over, Taylor had dragged one from Bishop back onto his stumps. In the fifth, Ambrose had sent back Ricky Ponting, the very man who had scored a hundred when the sides had met the last time. The three had all of one run scored  between them, that too coming off a slash from Taylor that had been grassed at slip.

The match looked destined for an anti-climax, a finish too early to satisfy the thousands of men who had flocked in even after the tragic loss of the Indian team in the first semi-final three days earlier.

But, as Geoff Boycott’s wise words had been harping throughout the tournament, West Indies bowling lacked depth to sustain the opening burst.

True, Courtney Walsh was a remarkable bowler to have as first change, but the support cast of Otis Gibson and a rather innocuous Roger Harper did not exactly threaten the batsmen. And then there was Jimmy Adams, who sent down — according to Boycott’s colourful Yorkshire description — some left-arm roobish.

And the Australians knew it. Stuart Law and Michael Bevan, the last recognised pair, negotiated the rest of the shelling of the opening spell astutely, and proceeded to play Walsh with due care. And as Gibson, Harper and Adams rolled their arms over, neat placements were made, gaps were found and runs were scored with increasing conviction. Both the batsmen posted half centuries and Law in particular feasted on some short stuff from Harper. Bevan joined in as well, moving to the leg-side and carting the off-spinner inside out over cover for six.The two stayed together till the 41st over, after which Law dabbed Adams to short third man, started for a single and gave up half way as Ambrose sent in his return. But, by then he had scored 73, and the score read 151. The rescue job had been carried out.

At his personal score of 69, Bevan holed out to point attempting to clout Harper inside out once again. However, there were very few overs left from the three main West Indian bowlers. Ian Healy took full advantage of this and hammered his way to 31 off 28 balls. The Australians finished on a rather decent 207, a far cry from the total that had looked likely during the first hour.

The self-destruction

However, it still looked a regulation chase. Chanderpaul looked solid with his deflections and occasional drives. Wicketkeeper Courtney Browne, used as makeshift opener, seemed to be putting his head down to the task as well.

It prompted Taylor to introduce his trump-card Shane Warne in just the seventh over. And off the first ball of the leg-spinner, Browne went back and spooned a drive straight back to the bowler. It was 25 for 1, and cause for great cheer as Brian Lara’s lithe form walked out to bat.

Lara had delighted spectators with a superb hundred in the quarter-finals against the lethal South African attack. And now he started with a blistering drive over covers which reverberated ominously in the Australian hearts. On that double paced wicket and sluggish outfield, where every batsman struggled to break the shackles and beat the field, Lara proceeded  to strike the ball with esoteric timing, finding the gaps with ease and élan.

Overflowing genius, when restrained from splashing about in ecstatic delight, has the propensity to implode. During a prolonged phase, Chanderpaul hogged the bowling, allowing Lara too few balls to ride the crest of his rhythm. Impatience produced the fatal error of shot selection, and Lara lost his stump to Steve Waugh’s medium pace

But overflowing genius, when restrained from splashing about in ecstatic delight, has the propensity to implode. During a prolonged phase, Chanderpaul hogged the bowling, allowing Lara too few balls to ride the crest of his rhythm. Impatience produced the fatal error of shot selection, and Lara lost his stump to Steve Waugh’s medium pace. He walked back for a run-a-ball 45, a knock that could have easily been extended into a match-winning one.

Yet, it seemed like a hiccup that could be withstood without much ado. The target was small, and Richardson was his usual controlled self, his only indiscretion perhaps a sweep which struck umpire BC Cooray at square-leg on the side of his head. Chanderpaul seemed well set for a hundred, suffering from some cramps, but still stepping out to the spinners, lofting even the pace bowlers with confidence.

And then, with the asking rate reading 4.77 from the last 9 overs, 8 wickets in hand, there took place the collective brainfreeze in the camp.

Chanderpaul charged Glenn McGrath, rather needlessly, holing out to mid-on.He trudged back for 80, a sheet-anchor’s innings played to near-perfection.

Now, with an yawning gap between the remaining balls and required runs, a task eminently achievable with sanity, basics and common sense, the batting order was shuffled into chaos. Big-hitting Roger Harper came in ahead of Keith Arthurton and Jimmy Adams. He lasted five balls, before moving across the wicket and missing an attempted nudge to fine leg, declared leg-before to McGrath.

It was 173 for four in the 44th over. Another 35 were required from 39 balls with plenty of batsmen waiting to bat. But yet again the West Indies team management decided to send in the hitter in Otis Gibson ahead of the specialist batsmen.

Richardson fought on, seizing a delivery on his pads, and dispatching it to the deep leg-side boundary. But at the other end, there was fracas. Gibson slashed at Warne without much idea about the length or break. Healy caught the resulting nick. The run-ball equation was now 30 from 35, and the wickets column had been needlessly bloated.

Adams, who could have been the ideal man to use some time to settle down and guide the innings at this stage, was made to hurry down and get on with it. He swung and missed a couple, blocked several, before trying to overcome his doubts by sweeping Warne from middle-stump. The bat missed and the finger went up yet again. His 11 ball two had been heaven-sent for Australia. Now 25 remained to be scored from 22 balls by a batting side caught in an avalanche of falling wickets and deserting common sense.

Arthurton, out of form for long, now walked in with his characteristic Marlboro-man swagger. The innings he played was miniscule and maddening. A man of his experience, with his persevering captain at the other end, now stopped three balls and went for an almighty and inexplicable slog off the fourth. The edge was fine and Damien Fleming exulted as Healy pouched it with glee. The balance had shifted totally, with 21 to win from 14 balls with just the tail to come.

Bishop drove the first ball through the covers and the batsmen scampered three. Richardson pulled the last ball of the 48th over to the square-leg boundary to bring it down to 14 from 12.

Damien Fleming (right) exults after shattering the stumps of Cortney Walsh © Getty Images
Damien Fleming (right) is jubilant after shattering the stumps of Courtney Walsh © Getty Images

But, off the very first ball of the next over, Warne ripped through a flipper and Bishop was all at sea as it thudded into his back leg. West Indies were 8 down and the lumbering form of Ambrose was walking in without much conviction. The leg-spinner had done the star turn, with 3 wickets from 3 overs in exchange of a mere 6 runs. He ended his spell with 4 for 36 from 9 overs.

Ten were required from the last over from Fleming. Thankfully for West Indies, Richardson was on strike. The captain clouted the first ball for four into the leg-side boundary. With 6 needed from 5, the skipper still on strike, West Indies still looked very much in contention. But, there had been too much pandemonium in the last few overs too expect them to sail through. Richardson inside edged the next ball and sprinted down the track as it went through to Healy. It was a meaningless effort at getting an equally meaningless single.

Even if they had got the run, it would have meant Ambrose taking on Fleming instead of Richardson — and with just a meaty stroke separating the two teams, one wonders if that would have been advisable. The attempted run definitely was not, and Healy’s throw broke the wicket. The appeal was referred to the television umpire and the verdict resulted in favour of Australia. With 6 required from 4four balls it was Walsh who walked in.

Walsh going out to bat was always a sight of unadulterated entertainment, but not really one to set the hearts of the West Indian supporters aflame with hope. Richardson met him near the thirty-yard circle, and walked with his fast bowler. The captain spoke a lot, and Walsh nodded once. The message seemed to have been passed, processed and understood. But would the pitiable ability with the willow manage to translate it into results?

The answer was no. The following delivery from Fleming was on the off-stump. There was no attempt to play it with a straight bat and get Richardson back on strike. Walsh heaved at it, wagering on chance rather than eye, with plenty of floodlight between flailing bat and static maroon pad. The final rattle was heard. The Australians converged from all corners of the field in an ecstatic huddle. Richardson walked back from the crease, for the last time in his career for West Indies, with his score reading 49 not out. West Indies lost by 5 runs.

Years later, Richardson confessed in an interview to CricketCountry: “I honestly thought that we could have won the World Cup. I felt let down by some of the players on that tour. We really should not have lost the match against Australia. I was just really really frustrated.”

His opposite number Taylor had led the side with extraordinary calm, taking all the correct decisions in the combustible heat of the moment. He confessed after the victory that West Indies had won 95 per cent of the match.

He was right. The match was turned on its head in the last 5 or 6 overs. And during these dying stages, the Australians kept their heads and the West Indians lost theirs.

Brief scores:

Australia 207 for 8 in 50 overs (Stuart Law 72, Michael Bevan 69) beat West Indies 202 in 49.3 overs (Shivnarine Chanderpaul 80, Brian Lara 45, Richie Richardson 49*; Shane Warne 4 for 36) by 5 runs.

Man of the Match: Shane Warne.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)