The climax of the Australia and South Africa semi-final at Edgbaston, a game that had compressed the glorious ebb and flow of Test cricket into one-day form and then produced a finish that belongs in the realms of fantasy fiction, was a moment of unmatched triumph and calamity, distilled into a few seconds of chaos. It produced the first World Cup tie, and the tournament's most breathless moment.
To lose a final is gutting indeed, but at least you can say with pride, "I was there." To say, "I was nearly there," however, is the stuff of nightmares. And, of course, those nightmares will be endured not by nearly- men but by two of the World Cup's heroes, the peerless fast bowler Allan Donald and the fearless Lance Klusener, who sees a challenge where others see only problems. For those just back from Mars, with three balls to go and the scores level, Klusener was on strike. Donald had just survived a possible run-out, taking off from the non-striker's end and being sent back.
Klusener struck the third-last ball past the bowler, Damien Fleming, and Donald's first and correct reaction was to regain his ground. Klusener's split-second decision, however, was to finish the game. Donald watched Michael Bevan field the ball, turned to see Klusener at his shoulder, and set off in hopeless pursuit of safety at the far end. He dropped his bat, but the ball was winning the race anyway. The Australians began to celebrate, correctly convinced that for some tiny mathematical reason they were in the final.
In fact, it was Klusener who had given them the clue. He had gone out to bat without memorising the consequences of a tie, and so, as the possibility dawned, he checked it with the umpires and discovered that Australia were a run-rate fraction ahead in the Super Sixes. The fielders were privy to the conversation.
In some quarters Donald cost South Africa a place in final after "the choke of the century", while others blamed both men for "freezing".
Donald clearly had the previous ball's near-miss at the top of his mental agenda and Klusener had all of two balls remaining to win the game - with his strike-rate, a measly single was small beer. Surely he was guilty of a rush of blood, while Donald was guilty of forgetting what his partner was up to. It was Klusener's call, and even if it was the wrong one, it was Donald's job to hear it as well as to secure his crease. However, as their captain, Hansie Cronje, pointed out, in the pandemonium that reigned it is easy to miss a call. "It's a cruel game," he said.
The MCC Cricket Coaching Book, the bible studied by all aspiring coaches, never envisaged Edgbaston on Thursday. "Except when the ball goes behind the wicket, the striker must always call," it says.
Well, Klusener did call. But Donald did not hear him, and it was the wrong call anyway. A direct hit at the bowler's end would have run him out.
The manual also counsels the non-striker to stand well wide of the crease. Had Donald done that, he might have had both the crease and Klusener in his field of vision. But in the most tense situation World Cup cricket has ever devised, who on earth is going to be thinking of the coaching manual, or even the team coach's recent exhortations, as the ball leaves the bat?
The former West Indian fast bowler Michael Holding, always a cool head in a crisis, had sympathy for both players.
"When you're sitting down watching you can see it calmly and logically. Of course, it's not like that on the field. I thought that Lance Klusener was wrong to attempt the single at that stage, with two balls left. Obviously, the previous ball was on his mind, and he wanted to get it over quickly. But with all those fielders in, he still had two chances to hit over the top.
"Donald was also at fault, because once he'd made his ground his job wasn't over. You must watch your partner, and he should have seen Klusener coming. Once that happens you have to run, to take a chance and go for it. There is no choice. So they were both responsible - Klusener for running, Donald for not responding.
"I admit I don't remember playing in a similar one-day situation, though. We tended to win easily, or lose easily!"