The South African fairytale had an abruptly tragic end imposed on it. In farcical circumstances England's professional skills would, in all probability, have triumphed in the end. But the weather dampened the southerners' fading hopes; a brief shower reducing the asking rate to an impossible 21 runs off a single ball when play resumed on Sunday night at the SCG.
The South Africans had done splendidly to get this far and they gave the favourite a very close run. England, going into the slog with wickets in hand and a free-striking Reeve, set a big target despite South Africa’s possibly wicked tactics of bowling five overs short. It is a tribute to England that it had analysed the possibility and quickened the slog past even the high tempo that was established at the start in the face of some doubtfully wet Sydney weather.
There was a rough and ready justice to the finish because the South Africans had been so tardy in their bowling as to have sent down five overs less than the stipulated minimum. They were to suffer the fate that a seemingly cruel and unjust rule has been handing out to most teams chasing readjusted targets in this World Cup. The rules may be farcical but they have to be applied uniformly which was the case though the rain had abated and nothing would have stopped an extension of play beyond the scheduled dose except strict council rules that protect the rights of citizens living in the area.
Rain robbed two of those overs which meant that the target was 251 in 43 overs and the South Africans were technically 19 runs short after the solitary ball was gently bowled down the pitch by Chris Lewis for Brian McMillan to take a single. This was a shameful, even ridiculous, finish to what was developing into a keen contest as the target was being defied in a late flourish by the seventh wicket pair. Gooch did, however, have the right to ask the umpires to consider the rain and stop play though he was the captain of the bowling team. Their pumped up spirit and free adrenalin flow may, however, have worked against them as the South Africans took the match as some sort of test of pace bowling rather than a more searching examination of collective one-day skills.
There was more than a hint of despair as South Africa began the chase rather too brilliantly. The fluorescence of the start dimmed once Andrew Hudson fell leg before to Illingworth. The element of spin at England's command made for sufficient bowling variety. The left-arm spinner, letting the ball drift into the batsmen, gave away runs but had two wickets. His second victim was crucial to the unravelling of this plot as Adrian Kutper looked eat to rebuild the challenge. The previous day's heroics being fresh in the minds, none would have ventured a guess where this match was heading until Jonty Rhodes fell to a slashing hit to square third man.
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Ha converted ones into twos with extraordinary sprinting ability. To the credit of the South African batsmen, they kept themselves in the hunt punishing Small and Botham for errors in line or length. Their failure may have laid in the fact that none got on to a big score. Hudson made 46 (53 balls, six 4s), Kuiper made his highest of the tournament (36 off 44 balls with five 4s) and Rhodes sparkled in his 39-ball innings (three 4s) that actually kept the contest somewhat open. The contribution of DeFreitas and Illingworth gave England the whip hand and Gooch may have miscalculated the overs in not giving a fifth of the overs to DeFreitas. Curiously, this was a day on which it did not seem to matter whether bowlers were fast or slow. To bowl fast is South Africa's strength but perhaps, also its weakness in the one-day game. By striving for sheer pace as the 'white lightning’ Donald did today is sometimes an invitation to disaster.
The bowler was fast losing the battle and dragging the others down with him. It was a different story with Meyrick Pringle who swung the ball both ways. His was a superb exhibition of fast medium swing bowling. Pringle was unlucky. He bowled Botham with an incutter that was chopped on. He beat Gooch constantly with the curving away swinger but the opener fell at the other end to what must rate as the worst decision of the summer. Steve Randell upheld an appeal for a catch behind the wicket when the ball cut in so much as to miss the bat by a foot and graze Gooch's shirt.
The flash point of the match may have been at hand. Hick was fortunate not to be given out leg before to the first ball he faced, the deviation to leg inducing a modicum of doubt in Aldridge that had to go to the batsman. Pringle had Hick caught at slip by Wessels in the same over only to realise fraction of a second later that 'no ball'. Hick (90 balls, nine 4s) stayed to conquer. He played to his strengths, waiting for the cut and the placement square on the onside. A measure of his increasing authority was to be seen in his willingness to pull the short ball from beyond off stump to the vacant areas of deep mid wicket.
Stewart may have begun hesitantly, once again uncertainty being bred by Pringle's movement but he made the most of the drivable bowling of McMillan to contribute a vital 33 (58 balls) that stemmed further loss of wickets. An offglide was to prove his undoing as Richardson covered ground to sustain the generally high standard of wicket-keeping in the championship. Fairbrother played and missed, often and embarrassingly, today. But those are the days on which the left-hander is said to score his runs. The partnership of his delicate offside placements and the onsided power of Hick fetched runs at a fair pace.
And the runs were being gathered briskly from the very beginning because of the uncertain weather which delayed the start by 10 minutes but did not reduce the overs any since the lunch. South Africa's slow over rate was the real culprit behind the shortage of five overs. Each player would have to pay a fine of a quarter of his match fee. Maybe, that was no concern of the fielding team which may have decided the full quota might mean a bigger slog in the end overs. There were 16 extra balls in the innings, nine of them having come in the first three overs itself. But that came about because the pacers tried to bowl too quick in a branch of the game that does not reward speed.
A possible decline in the run rate was indicated when Wessels threw in his final card in moving up the last overs of his faster bowlers And since Lamb fell, committing suicide through an underedge to a wide ball in the slog, there was every chance that South Africa would have benefited by failing to bowl the 50 overs.
Wessels may not have reckoned with the striking power of Dermot Reeve. In fact few may have thought it possible that Donald would be treated with the contempt due to a school boy pacer out on his first essay in the men's league. Pringle bristled at being swept from off stump for four but got away somewhat lightly Donald suffered Reeve drove him through mid wicket, stepped out to club him there again, and again, for three fours.
A toll of 17 was taken in the over which also became the last. Reeve and Lewis had added 30 off 17 balls, a useful boost to the tally though had they sent down 50 overs, the South Africans may have had an asking rate near six an over rather than 5.62. Such a slow over rate offends the spirit of the game, especially in a championship in which teams notorious for their tardy over rates have been finishing up 20 minutes ahead of schedule.
Robin Smith had to drop out with a bad back that he did in when he fell at fielding practice yesterday. A pinched nerve was the diagnosis then but the injury proved more serious. Reeve took Smith's place from the last England game while Small was retained and so too Illingworth, preferred over Tufnell. The batting went well enough for England not to miss another of its star performers from the southern hemisphere.
The story first appeared on The Hindu dated March 23, 1992