The most closely watched rivalries in any sport are those with some history behind them. India vs Pakistan in cricket, Real vs Barca in football, and Lewis Hamilton vs Max Verstappen in Formula 1, to name just a few.
Perhaps one of the more defining but comparatively less talked-about rivalries in cricket has been South Africa vs Australia. It has two of the most crucial elements of a rivalry: both teams are very good, and they truly disliked each other at one point—cue, Australia’s Cape Town ball-tampering row.
Now there may not be an almost militaristic jingoism that one associates with an India vs Pakistan match, but South Africa facing Australia in a World Cup still carries emotional baggage and enough needle to keep fans on the edge of their seats.
Former South African pacer Allan Donald, in an interview with the BBC recently, said about the 1999 World Cup semifinal between the two teams in Birmingham: “Her head in her hands, she was weeping (in the stands). I remember being dragged off the field by security guards. My legs were like jelly; I could barely walk. All I kept thinking was, ‘I let this little girl down’.”
It is a comment not just on the excellence and the expectation that came with that game but also on the pressure and the way that meeting appeared to end eras, epochs defined in a day, and on the impossibility of ever living up to the hype. “The 1999 World Cup one—it’s kind of folklore, isn’t it?,” said Aussie skipper Pat Cummins on the eve of his team’s semifinal against South Africa. “So, I’ve seen that replay heaps of times; you hear the stories. Yeah, mainly just that last ball and last over; I’ve seen that heap of times.”
The match seesawed one way and then the other until Lance Klusener crashed two consecutive fours in the final over to take the score level with just a wicket left. All Donald, at the non-striker’s end, had to do was complete a single. He couldn’t, and the match ended in a tie.
At the time, it was only the 15th tied ODI and the first in a World Cup. Australia advanced to the final by virtue of its superior net run rate, where it beat Pakistan to start a winning streak that would span three World Cup titles (1999, 2003, and 2007). Along the way, in the 2007 World Cup semifinal against Australia, Jacques Kallis would fall to Glenn McGrath in the sixth over—one of five South Africa wickets in a skittish first 10 overs—to further perpetuate a fate smeared with heartaches and near-misses.
This year’s Cricket World Cup semifinal comes at an interesting time in the landscape of South African sports. It reaffirmed its status last month as one of the most successful teams in the Rugby World Cup’s relatively brief history, claiming its second consecutive crown and fourth overall.
“To a large degree, we look at them in awe, the Springboks, and how they’ve gone about their back-to-back wins within the World Cup. Obviously, the way they won it this year with the knockout games being quite close, and again, how that resilience and that do-or-die attitude came through,” South Africa captain Temba Bavuma said. “That’s what we’ve been speaking about as a team: when the crunch moment comes, when the pressure moments come, we come together as a team, and we find a way to get over the line.”
Meanwhile, it has been 33 years since South Africa was readmitted into international cricket after a two-decade isolation imposed on the apartheid state, but the wait for silverware continues for this nation of close to 60 million.
Allan Donald and Sachin Tendulkar shared the Player-of-the-Match trophy in South Africa’s first international match after readmission, here at the Eden Gardens in Calcutta in 1991. Interestingly, the series occurred just before India’s planned tour to Australia. Shortly after the last game in Delhi, the Indian team departed for Down Under.
“We had been told India truly loved their cricket, but we had no way of being able to comprehend it without seeing it for ourselves,” wrote Mike Procter, coach of that South African team, in his autobiography Caught In The Middle.
Come Thursday, Bavuma’s men would hope to move a step closer to a golden chapter in the history of South African cricket at a venue where the country was once welcomed back into the sport with love and hospitality.
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