Cricket: A nerve-racking 1999 - the year the action went down to the wire: Klusener's rush of blood brings about a brutal end

World Cup semi-final at Edgbaston South Africa v Australia

AT EDGBASTON, in June, the two best cricket teams in the world barged towards the World Cup Final with bulging eyes, elbowing each other all the way. For every nip, there was a tuck.

Shaun Pollock struck the first blow by stuffing Mark Waugh for nought; but Ricky Ponting responded with a blizzard of boundaries. When he succumbed to a fit of machismo against Allan Donald's first ball, Australia sagged. Jacques Kallis and Lance Klusener bowled six overs for three runs, and a hush fell.

Steve Waugh and Michael Bevan dug in and were just starting to accelerate when Pollock struck them down. The innings subsided in a string of noughts.

South Africa's run-chase began smoothly, then hit a reef called Shane Warne. For the first time, they froze. Three wickets fell; 10 overs yielded 12 runs. And the game teetered on a knife-edge. Kallis and Jonty Rhodes rebuilt things, but fell behind the clock.

When runs began to come, wickets started to tumble, and so the match helter-skeltered towards its final switchbacks. Warne fooled Kallis, and the future looked Oz, but Klusener struck his first ball for four, and it turned Zulu.

Reiffel dropped Pollock on the boundary, and watched him hoist the next ball for six. But then Fleming yorked Pollock and the balance swung crazily again.

The man of the hour was Klusener. He buckled on his helmet, swung his lightning bat, and scored 31 off 13 balls.

Suddenly we had a cartoon finish - the final over, one run to win, last man in. Four, four, and the game seemed won. All he had to do was pick off one more run.

But by one of the awful ironies of cricket, he was in the wrong rhythm for pinching a single. If only he'd needed eight off two. But one run was tough, and like a nervous high-wire artist he made the ghastly mistake of looking down. He squirted the ball past the bowler and, blood roaring, charged down towards the motionless Donald, who dropped his bat, set off in a panicky jog, and was run out by a mile.

The game had lacked only one thing: a schoolboy howler. Klusener and Donald thoughtfully provided it.

It was a tie, but who had won? Australia went through to the final on a technicality, but for a while the crowd wasn't sure, and so began the futile "great debate" about who was to blame.

For my money, the game was in Klusener's hands: it was his call, he was on strike: it was up to him. But it takes two to tangle, and everyone at Edgbaston, all those who watched South Africa chop their way to the summit and then lose their footing on the brink, knew they were lucky to be there.

It almost made one wish that cricket had extra-time - a two-over slug- off would have been splendid, and softened the brutal suddenness of the ending.

Up in the commentary box, Geoff Boycott could have emphasised the need for a solid start. Klusener, the man of the tournament, would probably have been bowled first ball.

ROBERT WINDER

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