For 24 hours from Wednesday afternoon perfect justice was done in a way that seldom happens in a big tournament. There were only three teams left in the World Cup, and they were the three that had towered over the rest like Tom Moody over Steve Waugh - Pakistan, South Africa and Australia. There was a clear case for cancelling the last two matches and letting the three of them share the trophy. But, just as life needs death to give it meaning, so sport needs its losers. It is a shame, more so because the team that had to go was South Africa.
Still, better a cliffhanger with the wrong winner than a walkover with the right one, like the first semi-final. And at least Shane Warne lives to clench another fist. After seeing his own obituary in some of the papers, the greatest of many great players on the field at Edgbaston proved it all over again by being the best player on the day.
All yesterday, the excitement of Thursday was still swirling through the brain like a good tune from a previous night's gig. Adrenalin may beget hyperbole, as Derek Pringle pointed out in his match report, but there are times when hyperbole is what is needed.
Was this the greatest of all World Cup matches? Yes, because the most important thing in one-day cricket is to have a tight finish, and this was a close encounter of the first order. Nor do the comparisons have to be confined to other one-day games. Steve Waugh called it the best game of cricket he had ever played in, which covers 267 one-day internationals and 115 Tests. It was certainly the best day's cricket I have seen. As well as the highest drama, it had great fast bowling, even better slow bowling, immaculate defensive batting, fearless attacking batting, scintillating run-outs, agonising dropped catches, 20 wickets, 426 runs, gallons of ebb and exactly the same amount of flow. It proved, once and for all, that one-day cricket can be just as richly entertaining, as layered and textured, as any Test.
What did for South Africa in the end? When it is that close, almost any explanation will do. The smallest `if' could have made all the difference: if only Hansie Cronje, their best player of slow bowling, had not got the one bad decision of the day; if only Mark Boucher had not played wooden- handed at Damien Fleming at the start of the 48th over, and allowed three dot balls in a row; if only Klusener and Donald had had a game plan for the infamous final scene, and seen that there was no need for a desperate dash until the very last ball. Two factors in the background may have been overlooked. One is the curse of Zim. It was Zimbabwe who did for England, by doing a David-and- Goliath against South Africa. But they also did for their more exalted neighbours.
What put South Africa out, in the final analysis, was their net run-rate. Why was it not as good as it should have been? Because they lost to Zimbabwe. Going into the semi-final, it seemed that South Africa, showing their class, had tripped up only in the two games that did not matter, the ones that came at the end of each group stage, after they had qualified. But both did matter in the end, because they turned the run-rate from a friend into a deadly foe.
Secondly, there is the Symcox factor. Pat Symcox was a fixture in South Africa's one-day side during their almost-all-conquering phase between the end of the last World Cup and this one. He bowled wily, bouncy off- breaks, held improbable catches at mid-on, and thumped vital runs at No 10. Most importantly, he was a chancer, a trickster, a bit of a card in a team of straight men. He smoked a lot, enjoyed the odd beer, and liked nothing better than to tease and torment Australians. He was as near as South Africa ever got to having a Warne of their own.
Thursday's pitch, a slow turner, would have suited him down to the ground, whereas the man who has taken his place, Steve Elworthy, had an off day, conceding 59 off 10 overs. But Symcox was not an option. After being named in South Africa's provisional squad of 19 he abruptly retired, possibly because he had been heavily disciplined for making an alleged racist remark. Political correctness, which did South Africa a huge favour when it forced them to pick Herschelle Gibbs ahead of underperforming white men like Gerry Liebenberg, may also have lost them the World Cup.
Tim de Lisle is editor of
Wisden Cricket Monthly