An Homage To The Forgotten Heroes From The Greatest ODI Of All Time

ATUL KUMAR MAURYA | 20th July 2020

Everyone loves an underdog tale. There is something about people’s fascinations about characters and stories that overcome seemingly unconquerable odds, and the smallest of contributions in a winning cause script the most remarkable of stories. One such story is the ultimate cricketing underdog story as the mighty Australians took on South Africa in a nail-biting series decider, with the Aussies mustering up a mammoth total of 434, the highest ever in ODI history. Graeme Smith and Co., under immense pressure had to embark on a fightback like no other, in a series that was level at two apiece to accomplish a record run chase or risk getting embarrassed by a visiting Australian team in staggering fashion. With the odds stacked against the Proteas for obvious reasons, they made the impossible possible and rose from the dead to pull off one of the most unforgettable comebacks the game has ever witnessed.

But what about the underdogs in the midst of this underdog army? We reminisce about a day where the overlooked stepped up to turn a fightback that seemed like a dream to reality.

The Aussies were in record-breaking touch

Australia was touring South Africa for a T20 clash, a 5-match ODI series and a 3-match test series. The Proteas pipped the Aussies by 2 runs in the T20 game. This trend continued as they stormed to a 2-0 lead in the ODI series before the Aussies bit back and levelled things up to set up a glorious finale. 12 March, 2006, the day of the series decider, a jam-packed Wanderers Stadium. There was an air of unpredictability as two titans of the game had already served up belters in the series and this contest was about to reach another level altogether.

Ricky Ponting won the toss and decided to put runs on the board. South Africa had made one change to their side, replacing the injured Shaun Pollock with the young Johan van der Wath. What transpired in the next 3 hours after Adam Gilchrist and Simon Katich took the crease was something even Ponting wouldn’t have dreamt of in his wildest dreams.

Both the openers attacked from the offset. After Gilchrist departed for a well-made 55, the skipper walked in and took control of the situation. Ponting pulled and hooked the ball beautifully on multiple occasions, and was equally sumptuous while playing the lofted drives over extra cover. Michael Hussey joined the party when Katich fell to a short ball and continued with the attacking vigor. Meanwhile, Ponting completed his ton in just 71 deliveries, thwarting every bowler to all parts. After completing his ton, Ponting upped the ante and reached an impeccable 150 in just 99 deliveries. Punter finally fell to Roger Telemachus, finishing with 164 runs, his highest ever ODI score. However, the damage had been done, the head honcho had lead from the front and pulverized a Proteas attack that had no answers to the sheer genius of Ricky Ponting.

A batting masterclass

Vital contributions of 79 and 81 from Katich and Hussey respectively along with a late flourish from Andrew Symonds ensured that Australia ended up with the-then highest ODI total, a whopping 434 for the loss of 4 wickets. Ntini, van der Wath, Telemachus, and every other South African bowler had an economy of over 7. This was a statement as loud and clear as any as Australia both literally and metaphorically came, saw and conquered South African territory.

With the series on the line, the South African captain, even in his worst nightmare wouldn’t have thought of chasing that big of a total. Yet, the situation was bleak and it needed a miracle to pull off an impossible run chase.

Smith and Gibbs roared, but the other legends murmured

To tame the mammoth total, Smith would’ve wanted to take the fight to the Aussies from the word go. But the South African innings started in the most calamitous fashion. Boeta Dippenaar, while looking to guide the ball to 3rd man, chopped a fullish delivery from Nathan Bracken onto his stumps. Next in was Herschelle Gibbs. Gibbs, who once in Steve Waugh’s famous words, “dropped the World Cup” when he dropped his catch in 1999, surely didn’t want history to repeat itself, making him the antagonist in the taut situation. Both the batsmen looked to attack from the start. Gibbs was dancing down the track and playing beautiful lofted shots over extra cover. The skipper, on the other hand, was finding the gaps with the flick of his wrists. The duo was demolishing every bowler until Michael Clarke switched to round the wicket and made the left-hander fetch one from outside off. In an attempt to clear the mid-wicket boundary, Smith holed out to Hussey, ending his innings with a brilliant 90 off just 55 balls. As things stood, the Proteas were 190 for 2 with plenty more to get.

Next at the crease was AB de Villiers. In the process, Gibbs had  completed his 16th ODI ton with an exquisite cover drive off Stuart Clark. After Smith’s departure, he took up the mantle, facing most of the balls and wreaking havoc on the opposition attack. De Villiers, who was sent to up the ante from his end, failed under pressure and hit one straight to Clarke at long-on. He ended with just 14 off 20 balls. However, the stage was set for the most experienced batsman of the team, Jacques Kallis to shine. The stakes couldn’t have been higher. With Gibbs harboring one end, Kallis was the perfect partner for him to anchor the innings and go and get the win.

But the well-set batsman, who after hitting two consecutive sixes off Symonds, hit the 3rd one straight to Brett Lee at long-off. Gibbs, in what can be heralded as one of the greatest ODI innings ever played, amassed 175 runs off just 111 balls. At 299 for 4 and 136 still needed off 18.1 overs, Mark Boucher walked in to accompany Kallis to battle it out.

All eyes were on Kallis to deliver, but he crumbled under pressure and hit one straight back at Symonds, who took a wonderful catch to dismiss the-then No.1 batsman in the world. For all the expectations on the sensational all-rounder to deliver, he faltered for once and the prospect of a South African victory was up in the air.

The next man in was Justin Kemp, who was known for his attacking prowess, succumbed to the pressure in quite similar fashion and threw his wicket away. At this moment, the likes of de Villiers, Kallis, Dippenaar, and Kemp, on whom Smith relied to deliver the goods in crunch situations flattered to deceive. South Africa still needed 80 from 47 balls.

The forgotten contributions from a comeback for the ages

The Wanderers was stunned. At this moment, even the body language of Mark Boucher was one of a distraught man. Andrew Hall was expected to join Boucher and steady the ship, but Smith took a gamble. Enter, Johan van der Wath. The bowler who leaked runs while bowling in the first innings, came in to bat. For all of what people knew, he could hit a long ball. And van der Wath did deliver. He hit 2 sixes in Mick Lewis’ over, before hitting Bracken for a four and then hit one over the bowler’s head for a huge six. While Boucher was holding one end firmly, van der Wath attacked the Aussie bowlers. Bracken did get the breakthrough however as he scalped van der Wath for an astonishing 35 off just 18 balls, an innings that surely relieved some pressure off Boucher’s shoulders.

With 36 still required off 21 balls and 3 wickets in hand, Roger Telemachus walked in ahead of Hall. Telemachus again, who was hit for plenty in the first innings, had a sizeable task to see off the innings with Boucher. Playing an unorthodox shot, Telemachus swept Bracken from outside off and the whole of Johannesburg erupted.

Boucher hit 2 boundaries, followed by a lofted drive by Telemachus over extra cover to add to the Aussie nerves. Pushing hard for the win, the Proteas bowler miscued one, ending his useful little cameo with 12 off just 6 balls. In came Andrew Hall, with the equation set for the final over. 7 required from 6, with 2 wickets in hand and Mark Boucher on strike.

Smith must’ve been in dreamland seeing Boucher face the crucial over. However, after taking a single on the first ball, Hall was on strike. Unexpectedly, he cleared mid-on, on the second one for a boundary and the equation was now even simpler for the Proteas – 2 needed from 4. But Hall went for the glory shot, just to get caught at mid-on and setting up a nail-biting finish. It was now Makhaya Ntini’s turn to face the music.

Only Makhaya Ntini knew what was going through his head in the pressure situation. With the tag of ‘chokers’ looming large on the Proteas, a loss at this point would’ve broken a million hearts and proven an age-old cricketing theory that South Africa choke when the going gets tough. But Ntini did what Dippenaar couldn’t.

He guided the ball towards 3rd man and ran for his life. The scores were level. South Africa couldn’t lose from here, surely.

It was Mark Boucher’s moment of glory. As a ferocious Brett Lee came steaming in, the understated wicketkeeper sealed it with a glorious boundary over the mid-on fielder, reaching a gritty 50 off 43 balls and ticking the box of scoring the winning runs of the greatest run chase in ODI history.

South Africa won the match by 1 wicket with 1 ball to spare. The whole of the Wanderers and the nation erupted. But beyond that, this was a victory for the perennial underdog who manages to come out on top, despite the doubts that plague one’s mind, whether they’re internal or from the outside about whether they’re ever going to make it. And they did.

As the likes of De Villiers and Kemp jumped off the balcony to join Ntini and Boucher for the celebration, it was a moment that everyone couldn’t fully digest yet was certain would be a highlight reel of agony, fight and laughter for everyone to relive for years to come.

An overlooked take on the impact of the match and sport itself

South Africa edged Australia in mighty fashion to seal the series 3-2. Both Ricky Ponting and Herschelle Gibbs were adjudged Man of the Match, for their masterful performances during the contest. But it was something special about the contributions from the underrated figures such as van der Wath, Telemachus, and even Ntini’s single run. Looking at any of cricket or sport’s most iconic contests as whole, do the smaller contributions get the recognition they deserve? Not nearly as enough is the answer. And looking back at the contest, if it wasn’t for van der Wath’s blitzkrieg, the hero at the end in Boucher would’ve succumbed to the pressure. After all, the displays of the forgotten heroes exemplify the beauty of a team sport.

There’s still a debate about which single is the greatest of all time: Jack Leach’s at Headingley or Makhaya Ntini’s at Johannesburg. The debates can rage on but what cannot be disputed is the importance of that very run in both clashes. Ntini and Leach are few of the examples from a long list of small contributors that helped in making it big difference.

It’s about time credit is given where credit’s due and to the underrated dons that made the greatest comeback possible in the history of cricket, this one’s for you.