Proteas battle on England soil to erase ghost of Birmingham

By Robson Sharuko

HARARE – Almost 20 years to the day the Proteas froze in a semi-final showdown against Australia and virtually handed their opponents the Cricket World Cup, a new generation of South African cricketers return to the country of that unforgettable choking hoping to finally bury the ghost of that collapse.

The Proteas are the only African representatives at the 2017 lCC Champions Trophy in England, after Zimbabwe’s Chevrons failed to qualify for the tournament, and they will be carrying the weight of the continent in their quest to strike gold.

They will also be battling the demons of history, which has been unkind to them when it comes to international cricket tournaments where, again and again, fate had appeared to conspire against them when glory appeared well in sight.

Some of their harshest critics have even labelled them a bunch of chokers, who freeze at the big stage, and until they end that miserable run with success in a World Cup the dreaded ‘c’ word will continue to be a part of their game’s identity.

And, as fate couldn’t have scripted the plot – for them to dump that tag of chokers on the big stage – any better than a success story written in the very country where their most spectacular collapse happened.

Back in 1999, the Proteas appeared on course to earning a deserved place in the final of the lCC World Cup when they took on eventual winners Australia in their semi-final showdown at Edgbaston in Birmingham on June 17, 1999.

South Africa were the form side, they had topped Group A with four wins in their five games, beating India by four wickets in Hove, Sri Lanka by 89 runs in Northampton, hosts England by 122 runs at the Oval and Kenya by seven wickets with the Proteas’ only loss coming at the hands of neighbours Zimbabwe who won by 48 runs with all-rounder Neil Johnson taking 3/27 in that match at Chelmsford.

That Chevrons side finished third in Group A after famously beating India by three runs with seamer Henry Olonga taking 3/22 with a superb death bowling performance.

And, on June 17, 1999 at Edgbaston in Birmingham, the Aussies batted first but Shaun Pollock’s 5/36 in seaming conditions pegged them back and they could only score 213.

Allan Donald picked the four other wickets.

The Proteas, clearly, were favourites and they entered the final over at 205/9 with nine runs needed for the win and a place in the final against Pakistan.

The first ball of that over, bowled by Damien Fleming was full, and Lance Klusener drove it to the fence for four runs and, suddenly, the Proteas needed just five runs from their five balls with Klusener on strike.

The second ball, Fleming again went on to bowl full and Klusener was bang on target, blasting it onto the boundary at long-off, and the scores were now level.

The Proteas, though, still needed that one run, from the last four balls with Klusener – who had forced his way to 31 off just 14 balls – still on strike and, surely, there was no way they could lose this one.

But, lose it they did.

After Klusener failed to score from the third ball, he swung his bat on the fourth but mishit it to Mark Waugh at mid off and took off for a risky run that would have taken South Africa into the final.

But his partner Donald didn’t take off for the run and by the time he realised what was happening, and tried to scramble through for that run, he was way off the mark and was run out by a mile with the dramatic match ending tied and the Aussies – who had won a Super Six match against the Proteas – going through to the final which they won.

The Times newspaper of England voted it as the second worst choking incident by a team at the World Cup and respected cricket magazine Wisden’s declaration that this was the match of the tournament didn’t provide any measure of consolation for the deflated Proteas.

“This was not merely the match of the tournament: it must have been the best one-day international of the 1,483 so far played,” Wisden said.

“The essence of the one-day game is a close finish, and this was by far the most significant to finish in the closest way of all – with both teams all out for the same score.”

The run out has since generated more than a million views on YouTube.

“I suppose that YouTube thing will never stop,” Donald said as he reflected on that heartbreaking loss. “They never take that off. I’ve watched it a hundred and whatever times and I think that’s just something I had to deal with personally – being involved in that sort of incident.

“I think the best thing for me was to watch that and the best therapy to try and get to terms with what actually happened there. But maybe someday, maybe someday, South Africa will get there.’’

The Proteas’ fans have waited for almost 20 years, for their team to get there, but it hasn’t happened.

And, if they could end that curse in England, at the ICC Champions Trophy, others will say it was worth the long wait.

The Proteas’ first game is against Sri Lanka at the Oval on Saturday before they return to Edgbaston for a date against the Pakistan side they would have faced in that 1999 World Cup final and then round up their group matches with a date against India at the Oval.

It won’t be easy for them but Kagiso Rabada and Wayne Parnell gave them hope, in the final match of the three-match ODI series against England at Lord’s on Monday when the two seamers reduced the hosts to 20-6, the first time six wickets have fallen in the first five overs of an ODI match, as the Proteas eventually won by seven wickets.

But the reality is that the hosts, who won the series 2-1, rested the dangerous Ben Stokes and made four other changes for that match.

June 2017
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