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The Greatest Game

There is not a doubt in my mind that the South Africa v Australia semi-final match at the 1999 ICC Cricket World Cup is the greatest game of cricket I have ever seen.

Refracted through the recollections of most cricket fans I know, I’m inclined to think of this match as a final referendum – in the days when India’s representatives at such tournaments were no good – on which team Indian cricket fans came to support as their second-favourite.

Even if that framing is somewhat inaccurate in its particulars, I have little doubt that the outpouring of sympathy that accompanied South Africa’s incredible last-over capitulation contributed heavily to securing them that second-favourite status in many an Indian heart on the night of June 17, 1999.

In the years since then, in and through and after conversations that will never leave me, I’ve often wondered what drove me to throw my lot in with Australia that night. The only thing I can say for sure is that I don’t know for sure.

What I am sure of is that South Africa, on the day and through the tournament, were more complete, better balanced, and infinitely more exciting to watch. They were more dominant in every phase of play, more innovative in several ways, and had, to my mind, the beating of Australia in terms of individual talent. (I say the last of these with trepidation – that semi-final may well represent the twenty-two most talented men to ever take the field in a World Cup match.)

And, as the magnitude of that heartbreaking 10th wicket run-out which threw the South Africans out of the World Cup on a technicality finally burst through, it required understandably little persuasion to side with the team that stood inconsolable and vulnerable and human in defeat. (The strange thing is, I’m usually a sucker for such emotion. Examples of it in my own experience are too many to recount but the one that comes to me most immediately perhaps illustrates the point best: it took me until he threw away a winning position to lose the 2005 Australian Open semi-final 9-7 in the fifth set to finally embrace rather than resist Roger Federer’s early-career dominance in men’s tennis.)

Yet, for some reason, as this semi-final took one audacious twist after another, I was drawn, with rising stubbornness and determination, to these absurdly driven Australians, who looked capable of making a mistake every ball but also looked like they’d rather die than give up. I was drawn so strongly, in fact, that I’m still at it two decades later.

Rob Smyth, in a wonderful memoir published earlier today, has placed this match at No 1 in a list of the greatest matches ever played at a World Cup:

http://www.thecricketmonthly.com/story/1176611

“Two things demonstrate that a sporting contest has moved beyond greatness,” he writes.

“The first is that, when you watch the video – even 20 years later, even when you know exactly what is going happen, even when you’re a neutral – you still feel nervous.

The second is that, at the moment of triumph, those on the winning side lose control of their limbs…[Adam] Gilchrist, having broken the stumps at one end, then ran straight down the other end to collect a souvenir. He had no idea why.

The primal roar of the Australian players remains vivid in the mind’s ear. Many of them have described it as the greatest moment of their careers – yet some didn’t know precisely what they were cheering [after all, a knock-out match had ended in a tie].

It was Australia’s triumph, yet, in many ways, the game belongs to South Africa, who were instantly plunged into the kind of sporting grief that few will ever know.”

That’s a great articulation. It really is.

To it, I’ll add a third “beyond greatness” yardstick: it was as powerful a harbinger of the cricketing fates of South Africa and Australia in World Cup cricket as it was possible to imagine. While the match itself retains an endless allure, it is now impossible to untangle from this single moment in time what has happened since.

Indeed, if, in the throes of South Africa’s despair, a time traveller from two decades in the future had said that they would be denied, in turn, at five successive World Cups, by this tied game, by a horrific Duckworth-Lewis miscalculation (2003), by Australia in a semi-final again (2007), by a collapse from 2/108 chasing 222 in a quarter-final (2011), and in yet another contender for the greatest World Cup game of all time in yet another semi-final (2015), you’d have been tempted to believe it.

And if the same time traveller, in the pandemonium that enveloped the Australians, had offered that they would win four of those next five World Cups and utterly dominate one-day cricket in the process, you might just have bet long odds on that, too.

I know I would have.

It’s also perhaps why I’m hesitant to admit that Smyth’s essay on the semi-final – as exceptional and vivid and brilliantly crafted as it is – does justice to what happened in Edgbaston that day.

The simple truth is a blunt one: to anyone who grew up watching cricket as part of our generation, THAT South Africa v Australia match has attained escape velocity past the tethers of narrative writing.

No matter what our sporting loyalties, it endures more powerfully in our hearts and minds than words will ever be able to fully express.

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