Echoes of 1999 swirl but Proteas fail to turn the tables on old enemies | Cricket World Cup 2023

IIn the world of repeating history or otherwise, this was a half-rhyme – some matching asonances, some sympathetic consonances, the parts that followed the form of the corresponding agreement in 1999. Most of the ingredients were there: a strong South Africa, a World Cup semi-final, a score of 213 was enough to see Australia through. This version was not so heartbreaking: the final chasing pair operated with seven wickets instead of nine, and the game was played with 16 balls instead of two. But it was close enough that a sense of the past wafted through the present for people of an age to remember.

Sometimes happiness finds you where you least expect it. Australia’s fast bowlers had taken three wickets in their first two overs of this World Cup and then in the six weeks since then have been hit back and forth by every opening partnership along the way. South Africa had finished first five times in the tournament, scoring between 311 and 428 points. The captains tossed and the coin fell in the direction of Temba Bavuma. There were sighs of South African relief, fist pumps of South African triumph. Fate finally showed a hint of kindness.

Pat Cummins said resignedly that he wanted to bat too. But the conditions in Calcutta were also a different world to the one in which this tournament prevailed. In anticipation of rain, the entire playing surface was covered with white tarpaulins before the game, looking more like an ice rink than a cricket pitch. As if out of pity, the air was almost cool, not the water bath in which most bowling teams stewed. There was no sign of the sun anywhere. The sky carried as much smog as clouds, in the manner of India’s crowded cities during this tournament, but in the humidity the ball did the talking.

There was swing for Mitchell Starc, seam for Josh Hazlewood and it just worked for both of them. Starc had the right lines and threatened over the stump and the channel right next to it, first pulling Bavuma’s edge and then Aiden Markram’s edge. In between, Hazlewood hit his length and didn’t throw a single ball that could be directed. As soon as you looked closely, Quinton de Kock tried to smash the ball in the middle but sent it up. Cummins came in, ran back, tasked with looking for a white ball hanging in that dirty laundry heaven and let it fall back, celebrating before it hit the ground.

Ten runs from the first eight overs, the tension unbearable. Meanwhile, the fielding was as good as it’s ever been in the entire show, diving inside the circle and turning pressure-releasing four-balls into pressure-increasing no-balls. There was Travis Head, there was Marnus Labuschagne. David Warner was at cover point twice, to his right and then to his left. Warner threw himself spectacularly over with the catch at back point after Josh Inglis had made a good first catch behind the stumps. There was precision, energy, the whirring hum of well-maintained machines.

Rassie van der Dussen poked around ineffectually on 30 deliveries before desperation took over and drove over on the 31st. Again Hazlewood hadn’t taken the time to invite him. Straight to Steve Smith on the slip. It was 24 for four. South Africa’s powerful bat-first plan, laying the quiet foundation for David Miller and Heinrich Klaasen to stage a smash-up at the end, was done. It would be strategy on the run. After 11.5 overs of perfection, the game was already a loss for Australia.

Of course it didn’t work out that easily. As it turned out, the 45-minute delay due to phantom rain worked in South Africa’s favor, giving the batsmen time to take the spotlights out of their sights and regroup. Miller and Klaasen improvised another job and did it well. Miller’s 101 was a first-class attempt at resistance. But that first burst was still the difference. This left South Africa so far behind the game that they constantly struggled to catch up until the seemingly inevitable 212 was eventually reached.

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Just as Head and Warner’s first strike made the difference in the chase: 60 in six overs, well over a quarter of the target was wiped away before the bowling team could break free from the glare. Kagiso Rabada was hit for three sixes in one over, the costliest of his career. South Africa’s spinners got close to Australia but didn’t have enough defensive options.

This creates a theme that Australia can take up in Sunday’s final against India. A burst of brilliance, a period of total concentration, can unbalance even the best-placed teams. You can fight back, but it may not be enough. The symbolism of 1999 can only be stretched so far: Cummins hit the winning throw to four instead of two, raising the winning score to 215 instead of 213. It was the least consequence of many things that weren’t perfect for Australia, but things that in the end didn’t matter because enough worked out.

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