If at all there was an ODI that was played long ahead of its time, it was the 5th ODI between South Africa and Australia at the Wanderers on the 12th of March, 2006.
Australia smashed the then world record for the highest innings total in an ODI, 434, only to watch in horror as South Africa chased that down with 1 ball to spare.
438 still stands as the highest total ever chased down, almost 13 years on.
There was no T20 back then and scoring anything over 6 runs an over in a 50 over game was exceptionally challenging. For instance, take a look at the scores put on during the same series.
1st ODI at Centurion. Australia: 229/8, South Africa: 207/4 (SA won by 6 wickets by the DL method)
2nd ODI at Cape Town. South Africa: 289/7, Australia: 93 all out (SA won by 196 runs)
3rd ODI at Port Elizabeth. Australia: 254/6, South Africa: 230 all out (Aus won by 24 runs)
4th ODI at Jo’burg. South Africa: 246/9, Australia: 247/9 (Aus won by 1 wicket)
Not even one game with a score of 300 or more, and then, come the 5th ODI, the series decider, not 300, not 350, not even 400; but you have one team smashing the world record in the first innings only to have the chasing side smash that back to win the game and the series.
This was one for the generations.
To begin with, South Africa lost the toss and were put in to field first. However, Smith did say at the the toss that he’d have preferred to bowl first.
"Losing the toss and wanting to bowling first anyway and then with 10 overs to go and every ball is sailing over your head into row 20 or 30 you start to think, 'Well, that was a good decision, Smith',” South Africa’s captain for the game Greame Smith recalls.
"I remember walking past (wicket keeper Mark) Boucher at one stage and asking, 'Do you think they'll get 400? They can't, surely not'.
"It was a terrible day in the field, terrible, then getting off at lunch and knowing you've only got 15 minutes before going back out to bat and now you've got to contemplate, 'how do you do this?'
Ponting scored a career high of 164, powering Australia to an incredible 434/4 in 50 overs, and in all likelihood, a match and series win. (Looks like Ponting’s about to say “Fuck yeah!”)
“It was Jacques (Kallis) that broke the ice in the dressing room,” Smith said.
As the South Africans sat there in the dressing room, heads hung, shoulders droopy, gloomy and despondent, with an almost insurmountable task ahead, veteran Jacques Kallis walked up the stairs, looked at everyone and said: “Guys, we've done a great job! I think they're about 15 runs short”.
Delivered in his usual, no-nonsense deadpan style, the bewildered South Africans cracked up. There was laughter.
The tension was broken.
To be honest, I think this was the best speech and one of the most inspiring words ever delivered in a cricket match! They’re 15 runs short!
"Then we set some targets, which also made a few people chuckle because we had never seen targets like this in our whole career," Smith continued.
"It was a magnificent pitch, the ball was sailing on the Highveld," Smith recalled.
The Highveld region of South Africa is the area near and around Johannesburg, that’s an elevation of 1500 - 2100 m. At this elevation, the cricket ball really flies!
Taking cue from the Australians, Smith and Herschelle Gibbs launched a stunning counter-attack as they put on 187 for the second wicket in about 23 overs.
Let that sink in. The year 2006. 187 runs. 23 overs.
Smith went for 90 off 55 odd balls, while Gibbs stood anchor! Usually, it’s the other way around, but here, the captain showed the way!
The moment Smith got out, Gibbs took on the aggressor’s role, slog sweeping the very next ball, off Michael Clarke, for a six, making his intentions very clear. There would be no slowing down, no matter what!
"From that moment he played some unbelievable shots," said Smith. "We got ourselves into a position where we started thinking, 'Jeez, we can actually win this thing'.
Gibbs brought up his 100 off 79 balls, and was relentless after that.
Gibbs finally got out for 175 runs off 111 balls, with South Africa still needing 136 off 108 balls.
With Johann van der Wath’s absolutely necessary innings of a lifetime, 18 ball 35, followed by Roger Telemachus and Andrew Hall, and Makhaya Ntini’s (with two to win and 1 wicket in hand) cool-as-a-cucumber nudge down to third man to bring Mark Boucher on strike, and Boucher’s eventual straight drive to bring up the winning runs, South Africa pulled off the impossible.
As the earlier matches in the series suggest and, sort of confirm, these were the days when scores above 250 were challenging in 50 over cricket, and here was a team successfully chasing down 434! I mean, scoring 400 in an ODI was unheard of back then, let alone chasing it down!
"I'll never forget seeing the replay of Makhaya's one down to third man from outside leg stump, thinking only Makhaya could pull that off," Smith chuckled.
With the scores tied, Boucher hit a boundary for the winning runs and an already delirious Johannesburg crowd exploded.
"That moment, in that stadium, the Bullring, was something I wish I could have kept with me right throughout my career," Smith said. "The emotion, the crowd, what had been achieved was just incredible."
I couldn’t agree more!
There were 42,000 people in a packed Wanderers ground, and they were treated to the greatest ODI ever played! You could see tears in the eyes of the fans soon after Boucher hit the winning runs! Here’s the final scorecard.
Given the era and the way the game was played, the circumstances, and all other parameters, a match like this is unlikely to ever happen again!
This game is legendary simply because it proves, beyond any doubt, that impossible truly is nothing.