After the disasters that had befallen their own innings no one would have blamed the South Africans if they had come out sulking; instead they came out fighting and produced an awesome display of controlled pace bowling and fierce competitive spirit. Within seven overs Sri Lanka's hopes lay in tatters, and two decisions that had gone against the South Africans were rendered immaterial, probably to the relief of the authorities.
Lance Klusener turned in a superlative all-round show. His murderous assault with the bat pulled the South African innings out of the fire at 115 for 7, then he dropped the Sri Lankan effort into the frying pan with the ball, taking 3 for 21.
It could have ended in tears, though, after the South Africans found themselves victims of two decisions by the third umpire, Ken Palmer, one of which looked wrong, the other at best dubious.
The first was the dismissal of Shaun Pollock, who drove at a delivery from Muttiah Muralitharan. The ball appeared to hit the boot of the Sri Lanka captain, Arjuna Ranatunga, before ballooning in a gentle arc back to the bowler. Steve Bucknor and Steve Dunne conferred then passed the buck to Palmer. He spent several minutes studying television replays before deeming that the ball had gone directly from bat to boot to Muralitharan. Pollock was out, South Africa were in more of a mess.
However the video footage seemed to contradict Palmer's decision. There appeared to be a puff of dust as the ball made contact with the pitch before hitting Ranatunga's boot.
Then, just a couple of overs later, Palmer was called to intercede in another decision, when Chaminda Vaas caught a Darryl Cullinan shot deep on the long-off boundary, again the bowler was Muralitharan.
The fielder held on to the ball but in so doing lost his balance. As he stumbled backwards, in danger of turning the catch into a six, he hurled the ball in-field (rather in the manner of a slip catcher when he throws the ball up almost in the instant he has taken it) while he completed his tumble over the rope.
Law 32 states, in part: "The act of making the catch shall start from the time when the fieldsman first handles the ball and shall end when he both retains complete control over the ball and remains within the field of play." Palmer ruled that the catch was good.
The decisions sparked outrage among former South African players. Kepler Wessels called the decisions "very disappointing" while Mike Procter described them as "absolutely amazing".
Peter Kirsten, a former batsman, said: "Ken Palmer must be blind or perhaps he pushed the wrong button. Perhaps he needs to have his eyes tested. He took so long to give Pollock out there must have been doubt in his mind." Procter added: "It was so blatantly not out."
At the time of the Pollock decision, the television cameras focused on the South African dressing-room where their coach, Bob Woolmer, was seen to shake his head. Their captain, Hansie Cronje, said afterwards: "The evidence is on TV. I will leave it up to others to decide. We can't get involved." Woolmer explained: "We cannot make any comment. It is written into our contracts not to do so."
Thankfully, the only bearing either decision could have had on the game was to stoke up the South African fires to white hot. Sri Lanka's big guns were spiked from the off as first Romesh Kaluwitharana chased a wide ball and fell in the slips, then Sanath Jayasuriya lost his middle stump, both falling in Jacques Kallis's second over.
When the same bowler had Marvan Attapattu caught behind off a bottom edge in his next over, he had taken three wickets in nine balls and had doused the flame that had threatened to torch the South Africans' ambitions of fulfilling their pre-tournament billing as favourites. No batsman was allowed to get going. Roshan Mahanama did stayed in but was restricted to a stodgy 36 off 71 balls while at the other end his team-mates perished too regularly.
If Kallis, with 3 for 26, and Pollock, with 2 for 14, had torn the heart out of a surprisingly subdued Sri Lanka line-up, then Klusener destroyed their spirit, his haul including the last wicket. That was appropriate, since he had also had the last word with the bat. He subjecting a wilting Sri Lanka attack to a veritable blitz, hitting 22 runs off the last five balls of the final over, including two monster sixes - the second of which brought up his fifty off just 45 balls. Only Cullinan, with a sturdy 49, managed anything like a decent score.
The pressure is now on Sri Lanka to win their last three group matches. For South Africa the stage is set for a showdown against England at The Oval on Saturday.
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