Australia and South Africa have had always been an epic rivalry – with many an episode etched in our memory forever. And on this day 11 years back, they squared off for yet another time – giving the onlookers a healthy return worth their money.
It was 12th March, 2006 at the New Wanderers in Johannesburg. It was time for the fifth and final ODI of the series locked evens at 2-2. Australia lost at the rain-marred opening game at Centurion by the Duckworth-Lewis before the hosts extended their lead at Cape Town by thrashing Ricky Ponting’s men by 196 runs. The World Champions then bounced back to win at Port Elizabeth before winning a thriller at Durban to keep the series alive. And fitting to a finale, Jo’burg did witness perhaps one of the greatest slugfests of all-time.
Why one of the greatest? Could I be a little bolder in proclaiming the match as the biggest run fest ever? Perhaps I can. At a time, when T20 cricket has internationally been launched for just over a year and the format is yet to be tested by any of the Asian countries, an ODI match throwing up an unthinkable aggregate of 8.73 runs per over and that too for a match played a ball short of the 100 overs is categorically finely assessed in the Wisden Almanack’s match report as “the 2,349th one-day international was, quite simply, a match that surpassed all the other 2,348”. For record, the one-off T20 that both the sides played before the ODI series in context was only the sixth international game to be played in the shortest format.
If this game would have happened in this era of insane run-chases, perhaps not many would have battle an eyelid. When Australia went in to bat at first, the highest team total in an ODI still belonged to the Sri Lankan side that massacred the Kenyan bowling line-up for their epic 398 in the 1996 World Cup at Kandy. The visitors – having the momentum with them with back-to-back victories – started well. Adam Gilchrist reached his fifty off just 35 balls while Simon Katich was more patient to achieve the same off 60. The opening pair added 97 before Gilchrist fell to Roger Telemachus. The devastating No. 3 and skipper Ricky Ponting came in and he and Katich added 119 runs in the next fifteen overs before the southpaw opener left the field for his 90-ball 79 – anchored with a fine strike-rate of 87.77 that certainly looked mediocre in the context of the match.
Ponting was joined in the middle by Michael Hussey and the duo started to accelerate their ongoing onslaught even more. Australia reached the 300-mark in the 40th over and before that the skipper made his century in just 71 deliveries. Hussey reached his fifty off a mere 33 and made a 51-ball 81 before the 3rd wicket partnership of 158 came to an end. With four overs to go and the Aussies at 374, the visitors could well sniff that this was their golden opportunity to rake up the first-ever 400 in the history of limited overs. Pinch hitter Andrew Symonds joined his skipper in the middle – the latter already made the quickest 150 off some 99 studded with nine sixes.
Next Telemachus came to bowl in the 48th over of the match – and the bizarre over costed the hosts a total of 28 runs for the wicket of the Australian skipper. The 10-ball over – thanks to four no-balls on the trot at the beginning – was cashed in well by Ponting and Symonds and in the process Australia breezed past 400. Ponting’s saga ended on 164 – coming at a surreal strike-rate of 156. But there was little relief to the Proteas as the “Big Symo” and Brett Lee added another 25 in the remaining two overs. Australia finished at 434 – the highest ever score in an ODI then.
South Africa had a huge task at hand – if not a task that could never even be thought of winning in wildest of dreams. A couple of months back, New Zealand made a successful chase of 332 against Australia which was the then highest. Almost two years back, Pakistan put up 344 while chasing at Karachi against India – although they fell short by six in the end. So for the hosts, a target of 435 is certainly beyond the realm of possibility on paper – but on the carpet at the Wanderers there were more optimism at the dressing room as Jacques Kallis made them believe that 450 was gettable on this pitch.
South Africa did not get a good start – losing Boeta Dippenaar for one. The flamboyant Graeme Smith and the seasoned Herschelle Gibbs joined forces and they just tore apart the Aussie bowling. The hosts made 80 off the first 10 overs and went better to 168 at the end of 20 – their impressive run-rate kept the asking in check. Captain Smith went one better of Ponting to lead from the front – making his fifty off only 33. Gibbs however reserved his best for the end – his fifty coming off almost run-a-ball. Part-time left-arm spinner Michael Clarke provided the breakthrough – removing Smith for a 55-ball 90. South Africa reached 200 in the 23rd over – both the current and required rates showing an identical 8.7! A young AB de Villiers came on to bat – however he was just playing second fiddle to Gibbs who was taking most of the strike. Runs kept coming in boundaries as Gibbs reached his ton off just 79 balls and later almost matched Ponting for a 100-ball 150. When South Africa reached 279/2 after 30 overs, a 156 required off 120 looked achievable.
It was at this juncture Ponting brought his left-arm seamer Nathan Bracken – who scalped Dippenaar at the start of the innings – into the attack. Bracken removed ABD on the fifth delivery. In the next over, Symonds removed Gibbs after being hit for a couple of sixes – the right-hander made 175 off 111. With two new batsmen in the middle in the form of Kallis and Boucher, the required rate started to climb up a bit. In the last ten overs, South Africa needed 93 with five wickets remaining – the hard-hitting Justin Kemp replacing the dismissed Kallis. A cracker-jacker of a finish was on the cards.
A superb 41st over from Bracken costed just two – the joint-lowest in the chase, both bowled by the long-haired pacer. In his next, the best bowler of the match so far dismissed Kemp and gave away just three runs. However, Boucher and van der Wath made sure they made ample from the other end off the hapless Lewis. Pressure got eased with the hosts requiring 61 off the final six overs and at such van der Wath smashed a Bracken over for 14.
South Africa kept on closing out the game – the equation changing from 47 from 30 to 30 from 18. In the mean time, Bracken did dismiss Wath but could not prevent Telemachus from hitting him to the ropes. And then came the dismal moment from Mick Lewis – becoming the first bowler to concede 100 off his 10. Three boundaries for a total of 17 off the 48th over made the two-day old Durban hero end with nightmarish figures of 10-0-113-0. South Africa heaved a shy of relief – requiring just 13 off 12 with three wickets in their kitty.
Bracken ran in for his final over and bowled a decent over that assured of his fifer from the Telemachus wicket – the best bowler of the match ending with 5 for 69 off his 10. With 7 to get off the final, Andrew Hall’s boundary off the second from Lee almost sealed the match for the hosts. However, the speedster struck on the next and with more drama in the box, Makhaya Ntini came off as the last man. 2 required off 3. A yorker as predicted but Ntini cut it to the third man for a single – the crowd drew cheers as losing no longer remained a possibility for the hosts. In more cheers, Boucher slashed the next one over mid-on for four as South Africa reached home with a ball to spare.
11 years on, still there have not had been a match that provided such a run fest – the match aggregate of 872 bettered the then record of Karachi’s 693 by a margin of one-fourth and still stands unchallenged at the summit with 825 at Rajkot 2009 as its distant and only successor in the 800 club. Ponting and Gibbs scored the fastest 150s – while Lewis made a rare 100 with the cherry that still stood as the most conceded in an innings. Bracken’s fifer remained the only for a bowler from a team conceding 400-plus.
All these figures look stellar even in this era of power-hitting T20s – where any total is up for chases. To think of this achieved almost a decade ago when the shortest format just started to make its baby steps certainly inflates all these match figures in making this surreal day at Johannesburg go down the almanac as the greatest chase in the history of ODIs.