Cricket: Rainbow without crock of gold

ONE-DAY CRICKET is usually held to be a chaotic matter of implausible thrills and embarrassing spills. At Edgbaston yesterday there was no shortage of those - the game ended in a frenzy of twists and turns.

However, some of the episodes of play that gave the crowd goose pimples were slower moving. The game was at its most gripping when it ground to a halt as Jacques Kallis and Lance Klusener bowled half a dozen overs for three runs in the middle of Australia's innings as they seemed to have turned the match decisively South Africa's way.

It was extremely gripping stuff, every bit as edge of the seat as a bout of slogging. As the tension mounted, each new dot ball earned a nervous cheer. The fielders were decisively placed (three men square on the off side to Steve Waugh) and the bowlers speared it in with strenuous accuracy.

When South Africa batted, it was Shane Warne's turn to slip a noose around the innings. Ripping the ball like the Warne of old, not for the first time Shane stopped play. After a smooth start, South Africa spent 10 overs scoring just 12 runs. The pressure told: Gary Kirsten and Daryll Cullinan both succumbed to frazzled nerves, Kirsten with a crazy slog against Warne, Cullinan to an equally rash quick single that never was.

In the end, however, South Africa's performance was a tribute to Bob Woolmer's careful coaching of the side. England fans may well come to regret his reluctance to take on our struggling team. Four years ago, a few months before the last World Cup, he was coaching Jonty Rhodes in the Cape Town nets, teaching him how to flick a good length ball through the leg side. "The thing about Jonty," he said, "is that he's not really a batsman, he's a hockey player. We're trying to turn him into a batsman, but I don't know if he's got time. There's a young chap called Jacques Kallis who's truly something."

He must have smiled to himself yesterday afternoon, when the pair of them came together in a crisis and put on nearly a hundred to bring South Africa within sniffing distance of victory. It was a thorough vindication of some very long-term planning.

For South Africa, there are other long-term plans afoot. Indeed there has been a lot - perhaps too much - at stake in this tournament. The players know that the new government in Pretoria is resolved to impose energetic affirmative action on its sports teams. In the next World Cup (on South African soil) half the white players in this team will probably be replaced by black South Africans. This side represented both the last hurrah of the old regime, and the last chance for many of the individuals concerned.

That, in the end, was perhaps too much pressure for anyone to shoulder. The usual saying is that in tight games it is a question of who wants to win more. Yesterday, bravely though they tried, South Africa looked like the side that feared losing more. Their batsmen scrabbled for a foothold, but kept slipping on the steep slopes of their own high hopes. All they could do was add an amazing chapter to the book of heroic failures.

Once again, as in the World Cup semi-final three years ago, Australian steeliness, tempered by the brilliance of Warne, pulled a rabbit out of the hat.

It was impossible to count the twists in the tail end of this remarkable match. Warne's final over began with Pollock being dropped in the deep. He responded with a six and a four, and the rainbow nation started whooping and hollering and polishing its crock of Johannesburg gold. The pendulum swung three times in a single over. Kallis fell to his first moment of sloppiness, and the future looked Oz; Klusener hit his first ball for four, and it looked Zulu. When Fleming yorked Pollock, it was anybody's. Suddenly, and appropriately, the game had moved far beyond anything a coach could control. It was up to the players to seize the day. Klusener won the match for South Africa, then handed it back in confusion. It was too much for almost everyone.

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