On this day: A Mount Everest of a match

Australia’s world record score of 434 did not last half a day as South Africa made even the conquest of the Everest pale.

The scoreboard says it all.   -  Getty Images

Was this, a 100-over match replete with stirring deeds, the greatest ever one-day international, if not the best cricket contest after the first Tied Test? The evolution of batsmanship and the growing challenges for bowlers were two aspects of the game that stood out glaringly on that wonderful night at The Wanderers in Johannesburg.

In a clear indication of the direction in which limited overs cricket is headed, a great venue hosted a great contest. A target of 435 is not defendable any more. Come to think of it, many teams often don’t score as much in a Test match.

Two of the best fielding sides in world cricket left gaping gaps to be exploited by batsmen who had pledged to bury the bowlers on an amiable track. Australia’s world record score of 434 did not last half a day as South Africa made even the conquest of the Everest pale. This could not have been a planned attack.

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It had to come from the heart. Since Australia’s victory was thought to be a foregone conclusion once they crossed 350 with plenty of wickets and overs to spare, South Africa’s manner of comeback while facing a good Australian attack makes the outcome an epic one. An Australian victory, irrespective of the margin, would have made a lesser impact.

In golf one has come across many incredible comebacks. Greg Norman and Tiger Woods have scripted a few that belong to folklore. It is quite possible for a top boxer to take a pounding for 10 rounds and then inflict a knockout punch to settle the issue.

Football and athletics have seen countless exciting battles.

Herschelle Gibbs more than matched Ricky Ponting stroke for stroke.   -  Getty Images

 

But this one was regal. It stood out for the simple reason that in terms of the degree of confrontation, the pressure on South Africa was huge. In normal circumstances, it would have been a match as good as over even before the chase commenced. This, however, was a day marked for making history.

Australia raised the bar that did not prove high enough for South Africa in a match involving two of the best one-day teams in contemporary cricket. Looking back even Kenya, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Holland and Bangladesh have not conceded more than 400 runs. An Australian bowler now holds the dubious distinction of conceding the maximum number of runs in a 50-over match (Mick Lewis 10-0-113-0).

How the game has progressed. A total of 220-250 was once considered formidable even for the likes of Viv Richards. The last decade saw the bar being raised to 280-300 and then in recent times even 325-plus was not safe. The reasons could be many, but Kapil Dev, one of the greatest all-rounders, had a strong reason to pick — the revolutionary improvement in the quality of equipment. “I was discussing with Dean (Jones) and we both thought that the quality of the bats has made a big impact, especially on one-day cricket. Even mis-hits end up beyond the boundary. Thanks to these threepound bats these days, even good deliveries being dismissed over extra cover and point have become the order of the day and my heart goes out to the bowlers,” he observed.

Here it would be pertinent to recognise the advent of 20-20 cricket. It has begun to show its impact on oneday cricket. Despite teams getting increasingly superior in fielding, batsmen are still getting more runs than in the past in limited overs cricket. More number of ‘big’ shots are being played, thanks to superior coaching methods. The stress on improvisation is there for all to see as biomechanics plays an important part in the grooming of a cricketer.

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Elaborating his point, Kapil said, “Please spare a thought for the bowlers. There is nothing for them in oneday cricket. We need to rethink the policy of preparing placid tracks for limited overs cricket. Even today, a total of 230-240 can be defended on Australian pitches, but not elsewhere. Such dead pitches will one day kill the bowlers and also limited overs cricket. All this is good for the crowd, but then can you keep setting new benchmarks? You will have to give something to the bowlers, or else, even 500 would not be enough to win a one-day match.”

At the Wanderers, a ‘safe’ total was required to be redefined as the bowlers were made to forget their art like the slower one and weapons like the bouncer and the yorker.

The match reflected the changing thinking on batting in one-day cricket and the achievement becomes more significant because the team that chased won. Earlier, the teams followed the expected pattern of scoring when the field restrictions were on. Then they held on to wickets between 15-35 overs, being satisfied with maintaining 4.5 to 5 runs an over. With wickets in hand, they made the most of the last 10-15 overs to reach around 300. But the tactics have changed drastically. Teams like Australia and South Africa have proved that all overs are the same. The emphasis is on improvisation while playing strokes and a tremendous amount of work in the ‘nets’ and in the dressing room has paved the way for these teams to produce such exhilarating cricket.

The Australian captain Ponting was left in a philosophical mood at the end of it all.   -  Getty Images

 

The match also underlined the growing realisation of modern cricket that it is very important for the lower order batsmen to get a few runs. In short, there is little room for specialist bowlers. True there will always be a place for someone like Glenn McGrath, but not for long. The message is clear — all bowlers need to bat. The result of the match may well depend on the contributions by nine, ten and jack.

Mohinder Amarnath, an all-time hero of Indian cricket, summed up, “It was a great match but let us also not get carried away. This was once in a lifetime occasion and I don’t think we would get to see another game like this. Give credit to South Africa for its wonderful attitude. Cricket is a batsman’s game and nothing reflects it more than this great match. It was hard for the bowlers but then cricket is about entertainment these days and that’s how it should remain.

”‘Man of the match’ in the 1983 World Cup semifinal and final, Amarnath also advocated a rethink on power play. “As it is, we have restrictions for 15 overs. By adding five more, the rules have made life difficult for the fielding side, especially the captain and his bowlers. We also need to ensure the grounds don’t have short boundaries in order to set up a fair contest. Give placid pitches for batsmen, but not short boundaries,” was the candid assessment by Amarnath. Two batsmen got scores of 150-plus and it was a pity that one of them had to end up on the losing side. It was indeed so ironic for Ricky Ponting. It was at the same venue that he dominated the 2003 World Cup final against India. The same venue saw him fail to defend a record total. He will never forget the day.Neither would Herschelle Gibbs, the man who inspired South Africa to pull off the miracle.

The match had everything. A packed venue, a penultimate ball finish; some great batting, lusty hitting, and a few spectacular catches, all making it a sensational highlights package. There have been many last-over and last-ball finishes and some tightly-woven triumphs in the past, but for pure entertainment, this 872-runs-in-a-day (87 fours and 26 sixes) power play was unmatched.

Yes, this will rank as the greatest ever one-day international.

Brief scores:

5th ODI, Johannesburg, March 12, 2006.

Australia 434 for four in 50 overs (A. Gilchrist 55, S. Katich 79, R. Ponting 164, M. Hussey 81, A. Symonds 27 not out) lost to South Africa 438 for nine in 49.5 overs (G. Smith 90, H. Gibbs 175, M. Boucher 50 not out, J. Van der Wath 35, N. Bracken five for 67).

 

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