The curse continues

THE ghosts from the past returned to haunt South Africa at Kingsmead. The World Cup curse on the Proteas just refuses to go away.

THE ghosts from the past returned to haunt South Africa at Kingsmead. The World Cup curse on the Proteas just refuses to go away. The man who swings deliveries away from the batsmen was left devastated by the swings of fortune. Shaun Pollock, a lap-top in front, appeared shell-shocked, as he helplessly watched the downpour from the dressing room. Another World Cup dream was coming to a watery end.

Just one run had stood between his side and a place in the Super Sixes. Just a ridiculously easy single. And it all boiled down to a wrong message.

It was already drizzling when Muttiah Muralitharan began the 45th over of the innings, and it was clear that the Duckworth and Lewis over-to-over calculation method for rain-affected matches would come into play.

The target in the note sent to Mark Boucher was 229 for six in 45, and the spunky `keeper batsman even punched the air in delight after smashing the penultimate delivery over mid-wicket for a six, and then flicking the last ball along the ground to Russell Arnold at mid-wicket.

The umpires stopped play at this stage, and only when Boucher and Klusener made their way back to the pavilion did they realise the colossal blunder — 229 was the total needed to tie — and this wouldn't be enough for the Proteas who needed a clear victory. In other words, 230 would have put the South Africans into the Super Sixes from Group `B'.

The no score off the final delivery meant it would be the Kiwis, who would join Sri Lanka and Kenya in the next stage. For the World Cup's major host, this was a major tragedy.

In the '92 World Cup, South Africa appeared well on course to a place in the final, requiring 22 off 19 balls, when showers stopped play, and after the contest resumed, the Proteas needed 22 off one ball, thanks to a ridiculous rain rule that existed then. And in '99, a sorry mix-up between Lance Klusener and Allan Donald led to the semifinal against Australia being tied, and it was Steve Waugh's men who progressed.

Sri Lanka, fuelled by elegant opener Marvan Atapattu's 124 (129b, 18x4) and a strokeful 73 (78b, 6x4, 2x6) from the experienced Aravinda de Silva had posted a challenging 268 for nine in 50 overs.

It had been a good toss to win for Jayasuriya and chasing 269 under lights would prove a daunting proposition for South Africa. This was a big game and the pursuit would be fascinating. It indeed was and when rain so cruelly ended the contest, South Africa, with Boucher on a fighting 45 not out (50b, 2x4, 1x6) and Klusener, usually a slow starter, on 1 (8 balls), required 40 off the last five overs. The encounter could have ended either way, but then, the rain deprived the South Africans from having a crack at victory, and with it a Super Sixes slot.

The innings had been in a mess at 149 for five. However, Boucher and skipper Shaun Pollock kept their side in the hunt, adding 63 for the sixth wicket, before Muralitharan's flick back throw accounted for the South African captain in an agonisingly close run-out decision. Had Pollock stayed, 229 would have been enough to see South Africa through as the team would have lost a wicket less.

Ironically, the South Africans had got off to a cracking start with the mercurial Herschelle Gibbs and Graeme Smith rattling up 65 for the first wicket, and even winning an important psychological battle when the in-form left-arm paceman Chaminda Vaas was unable to stem the flow of runs.

Smith, strong off his legs, whipping and flicking whenever the pacemen erred in line, had raced to a 34-ball 35, when Jayasuriya's ploy of bringing on off-spinner Aravinda de Silva worked, with a helping hand from Smith who pulled a long hop straight into Pulasthi Gunaratne's hands at deep mid-wicket.

This was a night when Jayasuriya's captaincy was spot-on. He quickly realised that his slower bowlers could deny runs on a pitch that afforded some turn to the spinners. This meant, apart from Muralitharan, himself and De Silva would have crucial roles. Indeed, De Silva sent down eight overs for 36 runs, scalping Smith and southpaw Gary Kirsten, bowled attempting a half sweep, while Jayasuriya was the pick of the bowlers, firing down his left-arm spinners, bowling to his field, and not really giving the batsmen room to get under the ball for the big blows.

He got the odd delivery to hold its line too, and it was off one such ball that Jacques Kallis, not really covering his off-stump as he pushed forward, was castled. The Lankan captain trapped Boeta Dippenaar leg-before as well and his 10-0-49-2 was the decisive piece of bowling in the game.

On a day when Muttiah Muralitharan was off-colour - he hardly got hold of a consistent line — Jayasuriya, reading the situation smartly, even made use of Russel Arnold's off-spin. And it was the spinners who created the pressure.

Muralitharan secured the vital wicket of Gibbs, who moved far too much across his off-stump in a bid to sweep the off-spinner to leave his leg-stump open, but then, this was a night when the ace off-spinner almost gave it away in the 45th over, firing a wayward delivery down Lance Klusener's leg-stump to gift the South Africans five wides during a critical stage. And then he landed one right in the slot for Boucher to clout him over mid-wicket for a six. In fact, South Africa might never have got so close, had Muralitharan bowled a tidy line.

Earlier, Man of the Match Atappatu, dishing out some lovely strokes off the back foot, especially in the arc between point and mid-off, flicking delightfully and straight driving with aplomb had made his ninth ODI hundred, an effort oozing with class. And it was his sizzling 152-run partnership with the smooth stroking Aravinda that formed the backbone of the Lankan innings, on a day when only two other Lankans, Jayasuriya (16) and Hashan Tillekeratne (14) got to double figures. Jacques Kallis, who bowled well in the end overs, finished with three for 41 off 10. However, it was clear that the South Africans had let the game slip from their grasp in the middle overs when the likes of Monde Zondeki stood exposed on the international stage.

Yet, the Sri Lankan surge had been checked in the end overs, and then the home batsmen had taken the side to the doorstep of a major victory, only to see rain coming down at the wrong time. The `World Cup' Curse it may have been.

Said a visibly upset Pollock, "It's hard to describe... being knocked out of the World Cup because of a tie for the second successive time. It'll take a long time sinking in."

Had the South Africans edged out the Lankans they would have carried 10 points into the `Super Sixes'. Now, they had been knocked out. It can often be a cruel world.

The scores:

Sri Lanka: M. Atapattu c sub b Hall 124; S. Jayasuriya (run out) 16; H. Tillekeratne c Boucher b Kallis 14; M. Jayawardene c Boucher b Hall 1; A. De Silva c Smith b Ntini 73; R. Arnold b Pollock 8; K. Sangakkara c Pollock b Kallis 6; C. Vaas (run out) 3; M. Muralitharan b Kallis 4; D. Fernando (not out) 1; Extras (lb-2, w-11, nb-5) 18; Total (for nine wickets in 50 overs) 268.

Fall of wickets: 1-37, 2-77, 3-90, 4-242, 5-243, 6-258, 7-261, 8-266, 9-268.

South Africa bowling: Pollock 10-1-48-1, Ntini 10-0-49-1, Zondeki 6-0-35-0, Kallis 10-0-41-3, Hall 10-0-62-2, Klusener 4-0-31-0.

South Africa: G. Smith c Gunaratne b De Silva 35; H. Gibbs b Muralitharan 73; G. Kirsten b De Silva 8; J. Kallis b Jayasuriya 16; B. Dippenaar b Jayasuriya 8; M. Boucher (not out) 45; S. Pollock (run out) 25; L. Klusener (not out) 1; Extras (lb-4, w-12, nb-2) 18; Total (for six wickets in 45 overs) 229.

Fall of wickets: 1-65, 2-91, 3-124, 4-149, 5-149, 6-212.

Sri Lanka bowling: Vaas 7-1-33-0, Gunaratne 6-0-26-0, Fernando 1-0-14-0, De Silva 8-0-36-2, Arnold 4-0-16-0, Muralitharan 9-0-51-1, Jayasuriya 10-0-49-2.

Result: Match tied under Duckworth/Lewis method.