Three balls remaining. One to win. The World cup finals berth is at stake. Edgbaston is engulfed in anxiety. Every exhale from the 17,000-odd is a gust of pure tension. Lance Klusener, the man of the moment, is on strike. Calm and composed. Damien Fleming charges in from over the wicket. He delivers a yorker. Klusener mishits his drive straight down and takes off like a jet plane.
Allan Donald, who has just survived a run out off the previous ball, is caught ball watching, unaware that his partner is almost halfway through. He has backed up again and looks to get back into the crease, out of caution and fear of getting run out. Klusener has crossed him and this is when he finally turns back and looks to run. He drops his bat. Mark Waugh from mid off moves swiftly to his left, pouches the ball, dramatically dives and back flicks the ball, it misses the stumps but finds Fleming who is about five yards away from the stumps at the non-striker's end. A helpless Donald tries desperately to accelerate. However, an ultra-cautious Fleming, collects the ball, underarms the throw to Gilchrist.
"Oh it’s out, it's going to be run out," the great Bill Lawry screams on air even before Gilchrist has broken the stumps.
Donald knows he can’t make it and gives up halfway. Klusener keeps running, peeks behind nervously to confirm the inevitable and keeps running towards the pavilion.
"That's it! South Africa are out, Donald didn’t' run. I cannot believe it. Australia go into the World Cup final," Lawry's heartbeats increase every second.
A shell-shocked Donald turns back, removes his helmet and trudges back in oblivion, in despair. The Australians swamp each other in the middle of the pitch as the fans go into a frenzy.
Hansie Cronje sits in the dressing room staring through the glass window, shell-shocked and unmoved.
"Ridiculous running with two balls to go," Lawry continues in disbelief.
The security guy escorts Klusener towards the pavilion amid the pitch invasion. Ecstasy, despair, sympathy, shock. Edgbaston is now engulfed in a bevy of emotions.
In a matter of seconds, the biggest heartbreak in the history of cricket is scripted. The greatest ODI in the history of cricket is played out.
"I guess in the hindsight, it was a combination of both, miscommunication and nerves," Klusener explains that tragic run out to Firstpost. "Just really desperate to get the game over. To win a game that we were dead and buried with. So that was one part and then obviously with the ball going back at the wicket, Allan, had to turn to make his ground in case the bowler fielded the ball, with the noise, Allan facing away from me, was not been able to see what I was doing.
"I had the best view in the house as to what the ball was doing. I guess in the end, if you look at it, if there was a direct hit at the bowler's end, I wouldn't have made it either. Really unfortunate I guess. It was tragic if you are a South African or I guess an Indian supporter as well. I always hear a lot of my Indian friends saying it was very sad for them as well. So a combination of nerves...not really nerves but the eagerness to get over and miscommunication because Allan wasn't looking at me and the noise of the crowd as well."
No World Cup discussion is complete without the mention of the greatest ever match on that eventful evening in Birmingham. The memories are still fresh in not just Klusener's mind but in that of every single cricket fan.
The tournament witnessed the birth of Klusener as a cult hero. Not just the greatest cricket match and the biggest heartbreak, but the inspirational story of the man most intensely involved was also scripted. From somehow managing to listen to commentary of past World Cups on the radio during military service to being out in the middle, winning matches for his nation and clinching the Man of the Tournament award in the biggest competition, 'Zulu' traversed a fascinating journey.
"Let's not forget that coming from South Africa, the highest level I could play when I was growing up was for our state. So, even just watching the World Cup was something that was foreign to us really," Klusener recalls. "Whenever I think of the World Cup, it's the pinnacle of ODI cricket. We talk about Test cricket as testing your skill and character but to go out there and compete in a World Cup, its right up there with very hardest of Test matches you play.
"Just coming from apartheid South Africa called before the release of Nelson Mandela, playing state cricket was the highest you can get. And then suddenly being thrust into the World Cup was something outrageous. I remember listening to the first World Cup on the radio, I was in the military and we had a place where we could get some signal. So I used to go out there and listen on match days. That's definitely a fun memory."
After a brief change of topic, we get back straight into THAT match again.
Cronje won the toss and put Australia in to bat. On a surface that assisted movement in the first innings, the South African bowlers restricted Australia to a below-par 213.
In response, the Proteas got off to a steady start with Gary Kirsten and Herschelle Gibbs adding 48 for the opening wicket. But then Warne struck in his second over with that Gattingesque delivery to clean up Gibbs. Kirsten and Daryl Cullinan departed soon. Jacques Kallis and Jonty Rhodes led the resurrection act with an 84-run stand.
Just when it seemed South Africa were slowly getting into the driver’s seat, Paul Reiffel brought Australia back into the match with the wicket of Rhodes in the 41st over. And surprisingly, Shaun Pollock strode out to the middle at No 7 rather than the in-form Klusener. Five overs later Warne got the big fish, Jacques Kallis, and the match had turned on its head.
In walked Klusener. With 39 needed off 37 balls.
"I had no strategy. Just looking at it now, 39 off 37 balls is really a walk in the park these days. But in those days the pressure was on, sure it was a World Cup but it just seemed like an impossible situation but all it was, was a run a ball. So I didn't have a plan," Klusener talks about his strategy when he walked out in the middle.
"I thought really if I was there at the end, we definitely have a chance. So it was about survival, it was about rotating the strike and getting as close as we could so that maybe we could reverse the pressure in the second last over. It's never great to let it get to the last over but certainly, just try to reverse the pressure and get there. But yeah, now that I look at it, only 39 off 37, really a walk in the park. But in a pressure situation, big game, it's easy to lose sight of the fact that it really is only a run a ball and maybe a Chinese cut or a lucky four somewhere along the way and a run a ball gets you home. So, there was no real plan. The plan was just to be there till the end. And then it evolves and develops as the game goes on.”
Klusener takes a single off the first ball he faces, it’s the last ball of Warne's excellent spell of 10-4-29-4. And then announces his arrival with a four off his second ball, an arrogant whip through mid-wicket like a king.
However, Pollock drags one onto the stumps three balls later. The inexperienced Boucher struggles for his five off 10 balls before watching his middle stump go for a walk off McGrath. A delivery later, Steve Elworthy is run out. South Africa are suddenly nine down. Donald strides out to the middle.
Australia nearly sneak through the door into the final off the next ball but Paul Reifel palms Klusener's mistimed hit, off McGrath, over the ropes at long on. Sensibly, Klusener takes a single off the last ball to keep the strike in the final over with 9 needed.
Klusener has to do it all by himself but how much does he trust Donald?
“Did I have to trust him? Yes, of course, I trusted him. What a competitor he has been for South Africa." Klusener stresses. "And I will trust him with anything. If I had to trust him with the bat...I had no option. I always ask, where were the batters at that stage? Where were our top seven batters? Sitting in the changeroom.
“I always feel sorry for Allan that he would have to walk out there and do the batters' job. But yes, in a situation like that, you've got to trust Allan. Where I knew I had to do it myself was the boundary hitting. I had to do it myself. I knew Allan, I trusted Allan and the 40 million South Africans trusted Allan to survive. So yes there was definite 100 percent trust but I knew that the boundary hitting and a majority of those 9 runs in the last over had to be scored by me."
Fleming is entrusted with the responsibility of bowling the final over. He chooses to start from around the wicket. The plan is to bowl wide outside off since Klusener is strong through the leg side.
The first ball is nearly a yorker. But somehow, outrageously, Klusener carves it through extra cover. Tom Moody at deep cover, starts off in hope but in a matter of seconds, feels hopeless as the ball races away to the fence.
Fleming goes for another yorker again off the next one but ends up bowling it full, on middle. Klusener thumps it through extra cover again. This time the fielder has already given up before starting off. 8 runs scored off two balls.
A blockbuster start to the over.
"Those six balls, it would have been nice to have hit three boundaries, shake hands and walk off,” Klusener explains of the strategy for the final over. “Boundaries came early on. Fleming was a world class bowler at the death in those days, someone who could get the ball in the blockhole. So, was lucky to get them away."
There is a bit of a delay after the two fours as Steve Waugh rearranges his field with just one required off four balls. Klusener and Donald have a chat.
"The talk was all about, if we get the opportunity, hit the ball for six, we shake hands and we march off into the final. Definitely, hit the ball for six, hit the ball for four, the field was very close, very tight, so ones were not really an option. However, there was a gap up straight and behind the wicketkeeper but we had spoken about the fact that we would have to not give up the opportunity to take a one if that presented itself as well. We didn't want to lose any opportunity, whether it was a boundary or we had to scamper through for a one. That was also an option for us as well. So all options were on the table.
"If we had turned down that opportunity for a single and then got out the next ball, people would have said, well, there was an option for a single before that. All options were on the table. The plan was to hit every ball for four or six, shake hands and go home but we had also discussed the fact that if we could squirt out the ball somewhere, and try and get a single, we needed to do that as well. Especially early in the over, it was about hitting boundaries but if the over would have gone deeper, we would have had to take whatever was on offer."
Fleming now changes the angle and decides to come from over the wicket. He runs in and bowls it a touch short of a good length outside off. Klusener goes for a pull but ends up mistiming it to mid on, perhaps surprised by the length and extra pace. Donald, at the other end, has already set off after backing up too far. It could be over. It should be over. Klusener sends Donald back. Lehmann fields it and underarms his throw but it flies tantalisingly wide. Donald is light years late diving in. He sits on his haunches, looking at the skies, thanking God with an almost apologetic yet embarrassed smile.
The next ball...Well, it's a ball that creates history. The chokers tag is born. Australia sneak into the final on the basis of their win over South Africa in the Super Six stage. All South African dreams are shattered within a matter of minutes. Donald locks himself in the physio's room and cries for half an hour and so do the other big men in the dressing room.
It's been 20 years since that dramatic day. It was tragic, emotional and heartbreaking. However, Klusener has gotten over it.
"No, it really doesn't haunt me at all. Haunt is a big word," Klusener says. "Could it have been better? Yes, we could have just waited and I could have hit the next ball for a six and all would have been done and dusted. However, we had done really well to get a tie but what actually came back to bite us was our loss against Zimbabwe and loss against Australia a couple of days before that.
We had all of us to blame rather than sit there and put blame on myself or Allan. I always think it’s unfair, especially to put blame on Allan. We need to exonerate him from everything. I always say it’s the batter's job to score the runs and at that stage, the batters were having a cup of tea and watching the game unfold. Does it haunt me? No, it doesn't, I am over it. I can watch it with a clear conscience. I tried my best, got the team where it was but unfortunately it wasn't our way. However, we didn't lose the game. We didn't proceed to the final because of the fact that we had lost to Australia the game before."
Klusener finished with 281 runs from 9 innings at a staggering average of 140.50 and a strike rate of 122.17, comfortably the best in the tournament. And with 18 wickets, he was the fourth highest wicket-taker with an average of 20.38, an economy rate of 3.83 and strike rate of 31.8. It wasn't a surprise that he was named the Man of the Tournament. The seeds to success were sown through meticulous preparation ahead of the World Cup.
"I had been injured a couple of months before that and had the opportunity to do a lot of batting," the former Protea all-rounder explains. "I wasn't able to bowl with an ankle injury and then we went to New Zealand before that World Cup, we had the West Indies in South Africa before that where I had some success. I had the backing of my coach, most certainly the team and more importantly Hansie Cronje. He was a wonderful captain at that time of South Africa's progression into the World Cup. There was a lot of practice. I had hit a lot of balls, my guess is that I would have hit a 100 balls on a bowling machine for everyone in the game easily. And with that comes confidence. That was how I gained confidence, I was 100 percent prepared and 100 percent ready for what I was going to receive in the death overs."
If you were given a chance to go back and change one thing about that World Cup, what would it be, I ask him.
"I wouldn't change anything for myself really," he says. "I would change the fact that we never scored enough runs. We would have been absolutely unstoppable if we had scored enough runs. We had a very good attack which got us through in a number of games in that World Cup. But if I could change something and wish for something different, it would be the fact that I wish our batters had been able to score more runs. We were constantly under pressure because unfortunately, our top six batters weren't able to score enough runs. Sure the conditions were tough but if we'd done it just little bit more consistently… And that's going to be our challenge really I guess in the World Cup coming up. If our batters can score enough runs, we've got a good attack again but the challenge in England is for your top six to take responsibility to weather the storm and to bat those 50 overs and get the job done. We never did that in 1999."
That World Cup created a cluster of memories...
"Needless to say, the run out in the Australia game. The Pakistan game where we won from one of the most impossible situations (From 58/5 to chasing down 221, Klusener hit unbeaten 46 off 41 balls) that was exceptionally special. And at the same time, I look back extremely fondly on a number games, 5 wickets against Kenya. From a personal point of view, one of the highlights was it was the sweetest I had ever timed the ball in my career.”
But there is one memory that stands out for Klusener, a poignant one.
"I clearly remember standing on that balcony (after receiving the Man of the Tournament award) watching Australia lift the trophy and thinking how nice it would have been to not have received anything myself and for the team to have won the World Cup. I would have swapped anything for it. That is something I always think back on."