To celebrate the upcoming Cricket World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, we’ve turned to The Proteas by Neil Manthorp. In this extract we take a look back on the South Africa’s first World Cup, fittingly also in Australasia: it was a momentous and wonderful tournament that saw Jonty Rhodes deliver the most famous run-out in ODI history, but was destined to end in drizzle-soaked tragedy at the SCG.
There was outrage around the country, and not just amongst cricket followers. Even those with no more than a passing acquaintance with the game were appalled by the treatment meted out to three of its most distinguished household names.
When selection convenor Peter van der Merwe announced a list of 20 names in a preliminary squad for the World Cup in December of 1991, and it didn’t include Clive Rice, Jimmy Cook and Peter Kirsten, the good citizens of South Africa were up in arms about the unfairness of it all. There were petitions and even threats, some veiled and some very much out in the open. Kepler Wessels, who had assumed the captaincy from Rice, was suddenly a backstabbing traitor in the eyes of many, rather than the returning prodigal son who would lead the country of his birth into the brave new world. Wessels, who had honed his skills in English county cricket as well as with Queensland and, of course, the Australian national team, had nothing to do with the selection of the squad.
Van der Merwe tried to be as diplomatic as possible in the face of the hue and cry, noting often that the trio were “great players” and that their country “would always be grateful to them for their contribution to the game”. In the wake of criticism of the Proteas’ fielding on the exploratory tour to India the previous month, the six-man selection panel had decided, he explained, to opt for players “a little more fleet of foot”. Dear oh dear. Talk about being damned with faint praise. If anything, Van der Merwe’s attempts to pour oil on troubled waters merely inflamed tempers.
Behind the scenes, meanwhile, it turned out that the omission of the three had been far from unanimous, with selectors Lee Irvine and Peter Pollock strongly objecting. “There certainly wasn’t unity among the selectors,” remembers Irvine, who was one of those who believed that Van der Merwe was using his position to force a shift in power within South African cricket from Transvaal to Eastern Province. “We needed the experience of guys who’d played abroad, I felt, and I argued long and hard for the inclusion of all three of them, even with Kepler as captain. At one stage we got Kepler into one of our meetings and I asked him who he wanted to be opening the batting with on the SCG against Australia in a couple of months, and he said, ‘Jimmy Cook’. But Van der Merwe was politically astute and he got what he wanted.”
There were several “outsiders” in the squad, including the Northerns pair of Mike Rindel and Tertius Bosch, but most people reserved their anger/disgust/disdain for the selection of the young Natalian Jonty Rhodes. Not for Rhodes himself, of course – nobody had a mean word to say about the mild-mannered, clean-living boy from Maritzburg – but he did not, they believed, deserve to be going to the World Cup.
“If Jonty Rhodes is a better cricketer than any of Rice, Cook and Kirsten, then I know nothing about the game,” muttered Graeme Pollock when the squad was announced.
It was as close as anybody ever came to directly criticising Rhodes; it wasn’t his fault that he’d been chosen, but he was a soft target. He’d made cricketing headlines around the world the previous season when, needing seven to win off the final ball of the match, he’d despatched a waste-high no-ball from Richard Snell into the stands then followed that up with a four to take Natal into the Benson & Hedges day/night final. But aged 22 and with a single first-class century to his name, he wasn’t just seen as a “wild card”, he was regarded as an intruder. And even he had sympathy for the illustrious trio of senior players he’d leapfrogged.
“It did seem unfair that the players who had kept the game going for so long during the isolation years were deprived of the chance to play in the World Cup,” Rhodes recalled years later, “but there wasn’t much I could do about it. Maybe it was wrong but it wasn’t within my power to change it. I was as surprised as anyone when my name was included in the twenty. I didn’t even know anything about the announcement of a preliminary squad.”
After hearing of his non-selection, a distraught Peter Kirsten contacted Irvine for advice. “He was in tears, but I told him to shut up and not say anything in public because there was still time for him to make the final squad. But comments from Rice and Cook made it into the papers and there was no coming back from that.”
Cook, in particular, had something to say – but on behalf of Kirsten rather than himself or Rice: “I can’t believe that Peter Kirsten can win the man-of-the-match award in the third game in India just six weeks ago and now he’s not good enough to make a squad of twenty. Either you are good or you are bad, and I find it strange that those of us who were considered ‘good’ just a few weeks ago are now considered ‘bad’.
“I believe you should always pick your best available team and if a couple of them are a little old, so what? But the selectors have picked a squad of athletes here… Doesn’t batting and bowling count any more? The squad is supposed to be going to a cricket tournament, not a track-and-field meeting.”
While the omission of Rice and Cook from the final squad can be debated to this day, the selection of Rhodes seems eminently sensible twenty years on. Limited-overs cricket was evolving and the team needed the third discipline, fielding, to compete on the international stage. As cricket writer John Bishop wrote, with no little prescience, in a profile of Rhodes before the tournament, “One ‘impossible’ catch or one electrifying run-out could change the course of a match. In one-day cricket, it often does.”
Rhodes could, at the very least, count on the support of Mike Procter. “I had seen the effect Jonty had on the Natal team and I believed he could do the same in the national team,” said the Proteas’ coach after the tournament. “It was obvious we needed to lift the standard dramatically from what we produced in India and I knew his enthusiasm would give the whole squad a lift.”
While the coach did his best to make sure Rhodes relaxed and felt a worthy member of the squad, Wessels told him not to put himself under too much pressure to score runs because “your fielding is so good you are already contributing to the team’s cause”. It came as huge relief to Rhodes but he nevertheless rarely opened his mouth from the moment the team landed in Perth on 7 February 1992, to the day they left. Apart from one memorable exception.
Having played a warm-up match against Zimbabwe at Harare Sports Club en route to Australia, there were no doubters in the squad when it came to Rhodes’s astonishing ability in the field. But a useful 35 in the second practice match, against Western Australia, showed those who hadn’t seen much of him before that he could bat a bit too. Rhodes played in all of the warm-up games in Australia yet always felt on trial and was never secure of his place, well aware of the mounting calls for a fifth specialist bowler to be included in the XI instead of him, a sixth batsman.
But at least Rhodes was beginning to settle into the squad and no longer felt like an extra in a fantasy movie. One of the scheduled warm-up games, against a Bradman XI at the Aussie legend’s home ground, the Bowral Oval an hour’s drive from Sydney, was washed out. On the bus ride back to the city, Rhodes broke out of his shell and attempted to lighten the mood of a bored and tetchy squad.
“You’ve got a lot to say for a youngster!” snapped an irritable Kirsten who, having followed Irvine’s advice and earned his reprieve, was very much the “old man” of the squad. Rhodes was mortified and kept his mouth shut for the rest of the trip. At least he could lie low back at the hotel with his schoolboy friend and now roommate, Hansie Cronje. However, on arrival back in Sydney, team manager Alan Jordaan announced that the rooms had all been shuffled, as was the custom in the days of sharing – and Rhodes was drawn with Kirsten…
“I was terrified,” recalled Rhodes. “I sat in the corner of the room and read my book for four days. I was too scared to turn the TV on! Peter was a legend of the game and I felt extremely small.”
By the time the first “real” game finally arrived, however, the young and old of the squad had formed a strong rapport. That’s what sharing rooms was all about. One was neither cocky nor cheeky and the other was just a bit of a grump with a much more effective bark than bite!
Wessels had organised former Wallaby rugby coach and renowned motivational speaker Alan Jones to chat to the team the day before their first game, against the defending champions, Australia. Rhodes absorbed his advice like a sponge: “Don’t be over-awed by the occasion. The SCG will be packed and noisy, more than you will have experienced before. Get used to it early, run around the ground before the match starts – and then ride the wave, don’t be swamped by it.”
Rhodes did that and turned in a spectacular display at backward point culminating in what would become a classic Rhodes run-out, with the batsman – in this case Craig McDermott – stranded a couple of paces short with a bewildered look of confusion on his face, having been sent back by his startled partner.
As it turned out, the only man apparently affected by the noise and atmosphere was umpire Brian Aldridge who neither saw nor heard a massive deflection from opener Geoff Marsh to keeper Dave Richardson off the first ball of the match. Allan Donald had the look of a man who’d just been told a joke in a foreign language – he just didn’t get it. Back in South Africa it had just gone 6am, and a nation that would quickly embrace the thrill of cricket-induced sleep deprivation was equally outraged. Donald eventually shook his head and wandered back to the top of his run-up.
Nonetheless, the host nation were restricted to just 170-9, thanks in no small part to some superb bowling from student Richard Snell, who was making the most of the postponement of his exams. Wessels was brilliant in reply, finishing with an unbeaten 81 as South Africa won by nine wickets, against all predictions.
Allan Border was the first to congratulate Wessels, entering the change room to embrace his former teammate. “That meant an awful lot to me,” Wessels admitted later. “There was no question about where my allegiance lay, but AB and many of the other guys in the Aussie team were good enough to say ‘well done’. It was a special gesture from them.”
Sports Minister Steve Tshwete also appeared in the change room afterwards, greeting Wessels with his trademark bear hug, first to the left, then to the right and back again to the left. When the team finally arrived back at the hotel, Clive Rice was there to greet them in the lobby. “Fantastic! Bloody fantastic!” he said, beaming from ear to ear, and issuing Wessels yet another hug. Despite his personal disappointment, Rice would always back South Africa to the hilt.
The rest of the tournament progressed as a mirror image of the pre-tournament plan – everything back-to-front. Having accepted that they were huge underdogs for the opening game, Wessels, Procter and the rest of the management group had banked on wins in the next two games against New Zealand and Sri Lanka to keep their semi-final aspirations alive. Instead, they lost by seven and three wickets respectively, without managing to break 200 on either occasion. In Auckland, at the awkwardly shaped Eden Park, they were shell-shocked by a thunderous display of pinch-hitting from Mark Greatbatch, revolutionary tactics that followed off-spinner Dipak Patel opening the bowling. They were learning quickly.
Once again, the new boys to international cricket were expected to struggle in the fourth game, against the West Indies, but they bowled them out for just 136 to win by 64 runs, with Rhodes holding on to what he still believes was the most powerfully struck catch he ever took, to get rid of Brian Lara.
Pakistan were also expected to have too much flair and skill for South Africa but they, too, succumbed, this time by 20 runs in a rain-affected game that will always be remembered for the iconic, running, flying dive into the stumps that ran out Inzamam-ul-Haq and catapulted Rhodes to instant stardom.
Rhodes had never seen, let alone played against, a team in such apparent chaos. Most of the players were in obvious awe of, and completely subservient to, captain Imran Khan, and while their talent was obvious they were entirely unpredictable. At one stage Rhodes’s frenetic running between the wickets caused the already taut Pakistani temperament to snap. “Wicketkeeper Moin Khan tried to throw the wicket down at the bowler’s end but succeeded only in throwing it straight at the bowler, Aaqib Javed. The fast bowler went down like a ton of bricks and was stretchered off to hospital! Chaos broke out after that with everyone shouting at each other. I just stood there with my mouth open. I couldn’t believe what was going on.”
The mood in the Pakistan camp wasn’t improved when a downpour during their innings brought into play the tournament’s new and highly controversial rain rules, which heavily favoured the team bowling second. Instead of needing 212 from 50 overs, the target was reduced by just 18 runs while 14 overs were subtracted from the innings; in a stroke, what had appeared a rather comfortable run chase swelled to the imposing asking rate of nine an over from the final 14 overs. Nonetheless, Imran and a young Inzamam set about their task in an efficient and determined manner and added 85 from 97 balls for the third wicket. They were still on track. Until Rhodes struck.
“It was obvious that Inzi wasn’t the greatest runner, even back then, so I was alert to the possibility of putting him under pressure. Then the moment arrived – a call, a hesitation. A chance. It was a spur-of-the-moment decision. I could have thrown but there was nobody to gather it if I missed. We were about the same distance from the stumps. I just backed myself and ran. But as I got closer, I thought he might make his ground, so I just took off!”
Of course, Rhodes had no idea of the wider and everlasting effect his spectacular effort would have on his own life and career. Or South African cricket for that matter. The photograph and television footage was repeated throughout the rest of the tournament and remains, to this day, one of the most widely used images of the modern game.
The Australian media were on to the story instantly and The Australian newspaper ran the picture across its back page in banner style above the caption, “Kamikaze commitment: a fearless Jonty Rhodes launches himself at the stumps.”
In the accompanying story Rhodes’s status and reputation was well and truly under construction: “The stunning commitment of Jonty Rhodes underlined the difference between the two teams in the field and delivered the knockout blow to Pakistan.”
The tabloid Courier-Mail headline cried Diving Bok ends Pakis last chance, while the more prosaic Melbourne Age wrote, “One inspired leap by Jonty Rhodes carried South Africa into serious semifinal contention and at the same time sentenced Pakistan to a premature exit from the Cricket World Cup.”
While everybody was right about Rhodes, they had all failed to do their maths properly. Pakistan, of course, recovered their form and composure in the nick of time to reach the semis and win the final. Rhodes, meanwhile, was to have yet more labels applied by the voracious Aussie tabloids. “Kamikaze Kid”, “Blond Cobra” and “Mr Cool Commitment” were amongst them. Fortunately, they never stuck.
South Africa needed to win one of their remaining two matches against England and India to reach the semifinals and, for some reason, they fancied their chances against the former. Donald, of course, had already played three years of county cricket with Warwickshire and was convinced that his countrymen had nothing to lose against an all-star English line-up containing the likes of Ian Botham, Graham Gooch, Alec Stewart, Graeme Hick, Allan Lamb and Phillip DeFreitas.
South Africa produced their most convincing batting display of the tournament against England at the MCG, their seventh game. An opening partnership of 151 between Wessels (85) and Andrew Hudson (79) might have laid the foundation for something a little more imposing than 236, particularly when viewed more than 20 years later, but the ODI game was an entirely different beast in 1992. Two new white balls were used and batting was exceptionally hard work for well over half the innings, by which time many teams were already five or six wickets down.
In reply, an opening stand of 63 between Botham and Stewart came at an eye-watering (for the era!) five runs an over. It was broken when McMillan bowled Botham, but Stewart was flying and the match was flying away with him. Desperate times required something special and Rhodes produced it with a moment of stunning deception, intercepting a fierce square drive from Stewart by diving to his left and then back-flicking the ball to the bowler, Meyrick Pringle, with the batsmen momentarily confused by whether the ball had even been fielded, let alone was under control. Brilliant.
Although the instant dismissals of Robin Smith and Graeme Hick brought South Africa surging back into the game, there was too much nous in the England middle order, with Neil Fairbrother finishing 75 not out in what turned out to be a comfortable victory.
It meant victory against India in Adelaide was crucial for a semifinal place. With the match reduced by rain to 30 overs per side before a ball had been bowled, Mohammad Azharuddin made a brilliant 79 to help post an imposing 180-6. But the imperious Kirsten, bravely promoted to open the batting with Hudson, produced the finest of his various match-winning innings at the tournament. Having already made a mockery of the original decision to leave him out of the World Cup with five scores of 47 or more, he saved his best for the Indians, a wristy run-a-ball 84 that saw the team to the brink of victory. South Africa won with five balls to spare.
In the days that followed, the excitement of merely being involved in the World Cup gave way – amongst both the players and the South African public – to the slow realisation that they might actually be able to go ahead and win the whole damn thing. Just a few months earlier, the idea that South Africa would be participating in an international cricket tournament in a foreign land was enough to boggle the mind, and in the four weeks since Australia and New Zealand had faced each other in the opening game cricket lovers back home had gorged, at all hours and for days on end, on the unprecedented spectacle. Fans across the land found themselves watching cricket through the night, transfixed by the comic-book voices of Tony Greig and Bill Lawry, along with Richie Benaud, Ian Chappell and others. Schoolboys simply demanded that matches took precedence over lessons and teachers were eager to oblige, decamping entire classes to watch midweek games in boarding houses and rec rooms. With the oversupply of professional sport on offer twenty years later, it’s easy to forget just how novel and exciting a South African team playing official international sport was.
Still, after the rather comprehensive beating they had suffered in India the previous year, the notion that the South African cricket team – the Springboks, as they were still referred to by many – might have a chance of winning the World Cup was laughable.
But now there were just four teams left. If the South Africans were permitted to play, that is.
As it turned out, just five days before the second semifinal was scheduled to be played there was the not-insignificant matter of the 1992 referendum taking place on the other side of the Indian Ocean. It had been called by FW de Klerk to determine whether the majority of white South Africans supported his reforms to end apartheid, and it was an event of monumental historical and political significance. UCB president Geoff Dakin acknowledged as much by stating that the South African team would be obliged to pull out of the World Cup if the no-vote prevailed. For cricket lovers, both the future of the country and their sporting destiny hung in the balance.
The yes-vote won by a large majority; it was game on.
Contrary to oft-repeated perception, Wessels thought long and hard about his decision to bat or bowl when his team faced England for the second time in ten days, this time at the SCG. Rain was forecast to arrive in Sydney at approximately 10pm, the exact time the match was scheduled to finish. Would it affect the outcome?
Wessels decided that his team’s overwhelming preference to chase a target rather than set one should be his strongest motive. When Gooch and Botham were removed early, things looked good. Hick was trapped plumb lbw first ball, and England should have been 39-3 – but umpire Aldridge once again ruled against the South Africans. A moment later Hick was caught by Wessels at slip off Pringle – but the celebrations were cut short by the sight of umpire Steve Randell signalling no-ball.
Hick went on to score a fine 83 from 90 balls as England posted a daunting 252-6 from 45 overs, five short of their allocation because of a wretched over rate. Wessels and his team incurred a fine for their tardiness but were soon to pay a much more painful price than mere money.
The captain’s approach to his own innings indicated his concern at the size of the target: he threw off the shackles he had worn for much of the tournament to belt 17 from 21 balls. At the other end, Hudson smacked 46 from just 52. As the overs were knocked off, South Africa somehow remained in the chase. Everyone in the middle order contributed something but none better than Rhodes with a wonderful 43 from just 38 balls. The game was heading for a classic finish, a World Cup semifinal bubbling and simmering towards an explosive finale.
All it took was 12 minutes of rain to ruin the match, shatter much of the credibility of what had been an otherwise fine tournament and make cricket administrators and law-makers look like arses for the umpteenth time in the history of the sport.
Before the 1992 World Cup, the method for recalculating targets in rain-affected matches had been a simplistic and deeply unsatisfactory one: simply subtract the average scoring rate per over lost. So, if the team batting first scored 250, then the team batting second would have five runs deducted from their target for every over lost. Most of the time it simply handed victory to the team chasing.
The Melbourne Cricket Ground. Source: Wikimedia
As a result, the committee of experts – including the revered Richie Benaud – gathered before the tournament to devise a method that would take into account the benefits of chasing a target in a smaller number of overs. Rather than subtracting the average run rate per over lost, they decided to remove the lowest scoring and least productive overs first – in other words, the maidens. Even more disastrously in this instance, an immutable regulation was laid down in which overs were deducted at a fixed rate during rain intervals to ensure that games would never end later than scheduled, common sense be damned. And, as it turned out, it was.
When the drizzle briefly became heavier in the final minutes of South Africa’s chase, umpires Aldridge and Randell consulted the players from both sides and asked whether they would like to continue. In the circumstances, it was like asking a condemned man lying on the guillotine whether he’d like to proceed. Strangely enough, England captain Graham Gooch indicated that, given how much his bowlers were struggling with the wet ball and what mortal danger his fielders were in on a greasy outfield, he’d prefer to retire to the pavilion. South Africa’s batsmen, Brian McMillan and Dave Richardson, suggested that a natural conclusion to the match would be a better option. But, as there was no consensus, the players left the field. Large sections of the crowd began throwing rubbish on to the outfield, and Gooch and the England players were soundly booed.
Sadly, that was just the beginning of the farce.
The shower soon passed and the players trooped back onto the outfield with the PA announcer informing everybody that one over had been deducted – one of two Pringle maidens that had been delivered in an excellent spell of 2-36 – and that South Africa’s target was now 22 from seven balls rather than the 13 balls it had been merely moments earlier. The announcement – and scoreboard – was wrong on two counts.
Firstly, the total was actually 21 runs. (A leg bye in one of the maidens had been overlooked.)
Secondly, it was one ball. Not seven.
It fell to McMillan to face it, and he bore the demeanour of a man ready to commit unspeakable deeds. He blocked it.
The players left the field to a mixture of subdued, confused silence from the expensive seats and muted boos from the terraces. It had all happened so quickly and with such ruthlessness. The players and spectators alike had been robbed.
There was even more disbelief to come when it was learnt that, incredibly, there were still seven minutes of scheduled time left to play – the clear skies and working floodlights notwithstanding. Another over could have been started. And why not the full 13 balls? But the inflexibility of officialdom meant that 12 minutes lost to rain had to result in two overs being deducted. Even worse: the tournament regulations allowed for a reserve day in the case of inclement weather, but the host broadcaster, Channel Nine, insisted that the match be finished that day.
The image of Kirsten, who finished just behind Martin Crowe and Javed Miandad as the tournament’s leading run scorers, sitting on the balcony in unashamed tears, moved not only South Africans but cricket lovers all over the world. Just months earlier, any team representing South Africa was largely reviled. Apartheid had demanded that. Yet here they were, last-minute invitees to the game’s finest showpiece event, and everybody’s favourite underdogs. They hadn’t played the greatest cricket by any means – indeed, they only passed 200 on three occasions, and didn’t even make it to 240 – but they fought harder and scrapped longer for every run than any other team present. They had made many friends, very quickly.
Encouraged by Tshwete and supported by Wessels, the players returned to the outfield and embarked on a lap of honour. (Adrian Kuiper, caught off guard, memorably ran the lap with just a towel around his waist.) There was sympathetic and appreciative applause all the way, but especially from the large section of England supporters who cheered with genuine warmth.
“It was unfortunate that England’s players were booed,” said Wessels afterwards. “If I’d been in Graham’s position I would have done the same thing. We had to play through a couple of hard showers when England batted, and we didn’t come off, but that’s the umpires’ decision. I couldn’t do anything about that. I don’t blame Graham. It’s not his fault, it’s just the rules.”
Gooch was similarly honest: “I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t think we should stay on [to finish the game]. The South Africans must feel very dejected to lose like that and my heart goes out to them.”
A younger English writer, Martin Johnson, destined to earn a reputation in the decades to come for pithy and acerbic observation, summed it up thus: “Had Martians landed at the SCG they would have concluded that there was no intelligent life on earth and gone home.”
However, it is worth remembering his final notation too: that South Africa had brought disaster on themselves by choosing “to bat second on a day that had blown in straight from Manchester”, and they had also “resorted to tactics that reassured us that the cynical side of South African sport has not disappeared after 22 years in isolation”. If they had not slowed their over rate and instead bowled their full 50 overs, England’s total would almost certainly have been out of sight.
Meanwhile, Peter Roebuck, who would become one of the most erudite and respected commentators in the sport, led a more impassioned call for common sense to prevail: “Was there not one person in power capable of saying, ‘Stop the rules, get out there and get on with it’? World Cups come once every four years and some of these players will never return. Both they and their supporters deserved better. It was a chaotic finish and an utter disgrace to the game of cricket.”
Of course, no wise words of retrospect could have had any effect in those shattered moments after the game. “Cowboys don’t cry,” Mike Procter bullishly observed the next morning, but Jonty Rhodes admitted later that there was no lack of emotion in the change room. “There were many tears. It was hard to lose on a technicality. The guys were devastated. We had worked so hard and come so far… It was hard to accept.”
A momentous month was done.
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