Cricket Action Replay: Rain and rules conspire to conjure farcical win

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England 252 South Africa 232-8 England win by 19 runs (rain revised target)

World Cup cricket was reduced to farce at the Sydney Cricket Ground on 22 March, 1992, when England met South Africa in the semi-final in a match that was ruined by rain and the rules. This is Martin Johnson's report for The Independent.

THERE ARE times when coloured pyjamas and white balls are not quite enough to distinguish one-day cricket from the real thing - and the sooner the players are required to take the field wearing funny hats and red noses the better.

The way in which yesterday's match between England and South Africa was concluded would have been farcical enough in the Penzance and Newlyn District League, but in the semi-final of the World Cup it completely beggared belief.

England qualified to meet Pakistan in Wednesday's final through what an Australian Cricket Board official described as an "act of God", although had God been available for comment, he would undoubtedly have put it down to an act of complete crassness from the Australian Cricket Board.

Half an hour before the scheduled time for completion, a crowd of 30,000 people were ankle-deep in chewed fingernails, with South Africa requiring 22 runs from 13 balls to win with four wickets remaining. This is the very stuff of one-day cricket, and what gives it its enormous appeal. However, it had been raining steadily for several minutes beforehand, and the umpires then chose to consult with both sides.

The South African batsmen wanted to carry on, while Graham Gooch, the England captain, did not. The umpires, left with the decision, decided that conditions were unfit. There was nothing surprising in any of this. England were badly handicapped by a wet ball and a greasy outfield and, under the playing regulations here, the side batting second is placed under an intolerable handicap by the side batting first being allowed to shed its least productive overs in the event of a stoppage.

South Africa had bowled two maiden overs in England's innings, which meant that, with only 2.1 overs left to play, the loss of any more overs would not cost England a single run. South Africa's consternation, therefore, when they were docked an over after the rain ceased, was understandable. From 22 to win off 13 balls, they now required 22 off seven. How did we know that the umpires had knocked off one over? Simple. The South African tour manager, Allan Jordan, reported it ruefully to a team of Channel Nine inquisitors, and the crowd was informed via the SCG loudspeaker system.

The South African supporters were not best pleased to say the least, and vented their feelings by pelting rubbish over the boundary fence. Unbeknown to them, however, the news was even worse. The umpires had in fact calculated that two overs, not one, should be lost, which meant that South Africa were now required to score their 22 not from 13 balls, or even seven, but one. There was even more confusion later when the official scorers revealed that the target had been reduced by one run - a leg-bye scored in one of the maidens.

The batsman on strike, Brian McMillan, shrewdly calculated that 22 off one ball was not really on, quietly trotted to a single, and to the amazement of a crowd that had still not been fully informed, the players upped and left the field. So here we all were, floodlights beaming down on an empty field, with the last two overs of an exciting game of cricket having been plucked away by a regulation too potty to comprehend.

What, however, made it so utterly bizarre is that the scoreboard's electronic clock had been showing 10.03pm when the players re-took the field for their one ball, and the match was not even scheduled to finish until 10 minutes past.

However, it has to be said that the tears shed by non-South Africans last night would barely have filled an eggcup. Not only did they choose to bat second after winning the toss on a day that had blown in straight from Manchester but they also resorted to tactics that reassured us that the cynical side of South African sport has not disappeared after 22 years in isolation.

The South Africans managed to bowl only 45 overs in the allocated time, a calculated plan to disorientate a batting side which, naturally enough, sets out to pace their innings over the full distance.

England did mange to twig in time to launch their assault earlier than usual, although South Africa's plan to bowl as few overs as possible might still have worked if they had not managed to cram in so many hopeless ones. They were also undermined by their appalling record of wides and no-balls, and it was one of the latter that turned the match.

Graeme Hick appeared to have made one run fewer this time when he edged Meyrick Pringle low to first slip. The umpire, however, called Pringle for over-stepping, and Hick went on to play a majestic innings.

Most of the others chipped in, including Allan Lamb, but there was no more vital contribution than that from Dermot Reeve. In plundering 16 of the 17 runs that came from Allan Donald's final over, he took England's score from the good to the daunting.

England, however, began bowling as though they were defending 500. Chris Lewis disappeared for 21 in his first three overs, and although Ian Botham's gift for persuading batsmen to propel long-hops to fielders got rid of Kepler Wessels, South Africa were always within sniffing distance after getting off to a flyer. Richard Illingworth and Phillip DeFreitas bowled well enough to push the rate up to seven an over, but an aggressive innings from Jonty Rhodes had given South Africa a glimpse of glory when the rain came. "What Happened Next" was not so much out of A Question of Sport, as It'll Be All Right On The Night.