The Greatest ODI

International sport frequently throws up surprises. It regularly throws up unexpected events; it occasionally throws up occurrences which could be described as ‘highly unlikely’. What it rarely – if ever – does is throw up performances and events of such improbability that they simply defy belief. That, however, is exactly what occurred at the Wanderers in Johannesburg today. Australia set South Africa a world-record 435 runs to win in 50 overs, and South Africa successfully achieved their goal.

There were stars of the show wherever you looked. Losing captain Ricky Ponting, whose 164 was as breathtaking as it was powerful. Mike Hussey, who smashed 81 off 51 balls, and yet found himself the fourth-highest run-scorer in the match. Protea skipper Graeme Smith, whose blistering 90 off only 55 balls laid the foundation for the miracle chase that followed. Aussie left-armer Nathan Bracken, who took five of the thirteen wickets to fall on the day. Mark Boucher, who kept his head in the last over to smash Brett Lee for four and win the game. All of these efforts, however, paled in comparison to the Herculean achievement of Herschelle Gibbs, who pulverised the Australian bowling attack to finish with 175.

Gibbs’ onslaught was the continuation of a trend that lasted all day – a trend of wild and violent strokeplay that bordered on the sadistic. It was a trend that was started in familiar fashion – by the flashing blade of Australian ‘keeper-batsman Adam Gilchrist. Gilchrist recognised the flat nature of the pitch early on, and having almost fallen victim to an outstanding catch by Gibbs on only eight, resolved to make full use of his opportunity. He played stroke after stroke, bullying the South African new-ball pairing of Makhaya Ntini and Andrew Hall into submission with a series of boundaries. He raced to a half-century from 35 balls, but was cut short in full flow by an astounding diving catch from Hall at midwicket. By then, however, the early damage had been done – Gilchrist had made 55, and Australia had 97 on the board in only the 16th over.

If South Africa thought dismissing Gilchrist was going to make life easier for the bowlers, however, they were sadly mistaken. Ponting arrived at the fall of his vice-captain’s wicket, and wasted no time in easing into his stride. Even the usually withdrawn Simon Katich found it in himself to hoist a six over long-on, as the Australian run-rate began to climb ominously. Ponting eased serenely to 39 at a run a ball – then, with no warning, unleashed a series of astonishing strokes, hitting 38 runs off his next ten deliveries. This included four sixes, but was punctuated towards the end by the dismissal of Katich for a well-made 79. Australia then made the decision to elevate Mike Hussey from his usual position at number seven in the order to number four – and the change paid off in breathless fashion.

Hussey took his cue from his captain, and embarked upon his own assault – his innings of 81 came at a strike-rate of nearly 160, and contained three huge sixes, yet he still found himself playing second fiddle to the incredible Ponting. The two put on 158 for the third wicket in only 15.4 overs, providing a supreme display of authority over a withered and beaten South African bowling attack. Jacques Kallis, formerly ranked the best ODI all-rounder in the world, conceded 70 from only six overs, as the two combined to lay waste to everything the bowlers sent down.

Hussey finally fell at the beginning of the 47th over, but the barrage of boundaries was never going to end there. Out strode the monstrous figure of Andrew Symonds, feared by late-overs bowlers everywhere. Ponting brought up a magnificent 150 later that over – with a six, naturally – and then proceeded to feast on a no-ball buffet from Roger Telemachus, whose mental approach, like his figures, was shot to pieces. He sent down four consecutive no-balls at the start of the 48th over, and the strokes of the two batsmen saw him concede 21 runs from just one legal delivery. Despite finally claiming Ponting’s wicket off the fourth ball, caught on the midwicket boundary by the leaping Boeta Dippenaar, he managed to concede 28 runs from the over.

The fall of Ponting’s wicket brought another unorthodox move from the Australians – big-hitting fast-bowler Brett Lee was promoted to number six, a position he will not often have found himself in, as they looked to hammer home their massive advantage. Twenty-five runs came from the final two overs, as Australia finished on a frankly ridiculous 434 for 4. Gilchrist provided the springboard; Katich was the ballast, Ponting the impetus; Hussey hustled, and as for Symonds – well, not only did he deliver the final nail in the coffin, but he and Lee were pallbearers and priests to boot, as the last rites of South Africa’s victory hopes were read.

Or so it seemed. The home side had no choice but to attempt the impossible – with this the final of a thrilling series which stood at 2-2, conceding defeat was not an option. Graeme Smith’s labelling of his opponents as “chokers” prior to the series decider looked set to come back to haunt him – the prospect of a South African victory was universally ridiculed at the innings break. When Boeta Dippenaar dragged Nathan Bracken onto his stumps from just the eighth ball of the Proteas’ reply, South African hearts sank even further. With hindsight, Australia may wish they had allowed the naturally defensive Dippenaar to remain at the crease a little longer – the partnership that followed, between the celebrated duo of Smith and Gibbs, was a truly memorable one.

Smith took centre stage early on, as loose bowling from Lee and Stuart Clark allowed the runs to flow freely. He raced to an authoritative half-century off only 33 balls, as he looked to keep his side’s faint hopes alive. Gibbs accumulated steadily at the other end, progressing at just over a run a ball, as Smith blazed away opposite him. Gibbs watched as his captain flayed his way to 90, smashing two maximums in the process, before lofting the left-arm spin of Michael Clarke into the grateful hands of Mike Hussey at deep midwicket. This, however, only served to allow Gibbs to take centre stage. He smashed Clarke’s next ball into the stands at square leg to move into the nineties, and showed no signs of nerves in blasting Stuart Clark for consecutive fours to bring up a stunning hundred, off a mere 79 balls. Surely he couldn’t lead his side to a victory?

The 29th over then yielded three fours and a six from Gibbs, with the hapless Mick Lewis his victim – Lewis finished with comfortably the worst bowling analysis in ODI history, a terrible 10-0-113-0. Lacking pace, penetration, bounce or swing, Lewis was an easy target for the batsmen, and has surely bowled himself out of contention for international selection in the future. Despite a lack of urgency from partner AB de Villiers, Gibbs hurtled along throughout the middle overs, pounding any Australian who dared bowl at him to the far corners of the Wanderers ground. Before anyone in the ground had a chance to blink, he had scorched his way to a scintillating 150.

He lost de Villiers shortly afterwards, Bracken picking up his second wicket – but Andrew Symonds’ next over saw Gibbs launch the sixth and seventh sixes of his mammoth innings. However, he was stopped in his tracks by a catch on the boundary by Brett Lee off the following ball – having looked for all the world like the first man to make an ODI double-century. Having been dropped on 130 by Bracken – a simple chance at mid-off – there will be those who claim that he was lucky to get to 175; but to get there in the fashion he did, from only 111 balls, deserves praise of the highest order. Here it is, then: his innings was not only the finest among many fine innings in this ODI, or in this series; it was the finest of all the innings, in all the ODIs, in all the series. In two thousand, three hundred and forty nine ODIs, no player has played a better innings.

Following Gibbs’ dismissal, Jacques Kallis arrived at the wicket. His stand with Mark Boucher constituted a period of consolidation for the South Africans – only one boundary came in the next 34 balls. The 35th ball of the partnership saw Kallis caught and bowled by Symonds, with the Proteas, remarkably, still ahead of the required run rate, even after 37.4 overs. Justin Kemp’s arrival at the crease prompted another 26 balls of regrouping, punctuated again by a lone boundary – and when he cut straight into the hands of Damien Martyn to give Nathan Bracken his third wicket with the score on 355, South Africa’s heroic chase was in danger of collapsing.

Johannes van der Wath had other ideas.

The tall all-rounder came out with his side needing eighty off the last eight overs – he returned to the pavilion having carved a brutal 35 from only 18 balls. Despite having only six ODIs under his belt before the game, he showed no nerves in belting Lewis – inexplicably recalled to the attack by Ponting – for two massive sixes in the 44th over. He continued swinging in the next over, smashing Bracken for a four and a six to drive his side towards the 400 mark – but Bracken snared him two overs later, as he lobbed a full toss to Ponting at extra cover. Roger Telemachus was the new batsman, coming in one place early because of his ability to hit cleanly – and hit cleanly he did, bashing two fours in a quickfire twelve.

The game was coming to a titanic conclusion by this point – the Johannesburg crowd were a mixture of frenzied excitement and withered nerves, the Australian players looking increasingly edgy and fearful. Telemachus perished in the penultimate over to give Bracken a five-wicket haul, and a richly-deserved one too. He had kept his head when all around him were losing theirs, mixing up his deliveries well, and proving hard to score off – relative to the other Australian bowlers, of course. Mick Lewis, meanwhile, continued to deliver what can only be described as help-yourself bowling – Brett Lee returned for the final over of a truly wonderful spectacle. With only seven runs needed, and two more than capable batsmen at the crease, in all-rounder Andrew Hall and ‘keeper Mark Boucher, South Africa were favourites.

Boucher had played superbly for his unbeaten 45 up to that point – nudging singles well, and willing to strike a boundary when the need presented itself. He found himself up against the world’s fastest bowler, with a chance to secure an historic victory for his side, and showed outstanding calmness under pressure in a no doubt intimidating situation. He grabbed a single to gully from the first ball of the final over, bringing Hall on strike. Lee steamed in, bowled – and Hall calmly stroked him through the leg-side for a welcome boundary. The Wanderers crowd bayed – with two runs needed from four balls, the game was surely sealed. Or not.

Next ball, Hall decided to chip Lee over midwicket – only, he failed. The ball dropped straight into the hands of Michael Clarke at mid-on, and South Africa’s ninth wicket had fallen. Out stepped number eleven Makhaya Ntini for the most important moment of his batting career to date. Three balls, two runs. Briefly, the population of the stadium considered the possibility of a tie – then decided that there simply wasn’t room in their brain for any more thoughts, and concentrated on watching the game. Lee steamed in again, and delivered a quick ball outside Ntini’s off-stump – and with all the consummate ease of a number three, the fast bowler eased it down to third man for a single. The most crucial run he will ever score.

Two balls, one run. Boucher on strike. Lee could not afford a bad ball – indeed, he could not afford anything other than a great ball. Yorker? Bouncer? Length ball? Lee’s mind raced as his captain prayed for the wicket that would have brought the match to a scarcely believable tie. The thinking ended, and the runup began – three seconds later, and the ball was racing away towards the mid-on fence. South Africa had won. The impossible had happened. A team had scored 434 runs in 50 overs, and then another team had come along and scored more. South African fans cried with joy at the clinching of a series victory by the smallest of margins – Australian fans just cried.

The greatest ODI of all time was over. South Africa had exorcised the ghost of their World Cup semi-final defeat in 1999. Australia had thrown away a seemingly unassailable, record-breaking position. 872 runs had been scored in 99.5 overs of cricket.

Every now and again, international sport throws up something simply glorious.

Australia 434-4 (50 overs)
Ponting 164, Hussey 81, Katich 79, Gilchrist 55; Telemachus 2-87

South Africa 438-9 (49.5 overs)
Gibbs 175, Smith 90, Boucher 50*; Bracken 5-67

Cricket Web Player of the Match – Herschelle Gibbs, 175 (111b, 21×4, 7×6)

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