In the world of history repeating or otherwise, this was a half-rhyme – some matching assonance, some sympathetic consonance, the parts that followed the shape of the corresponding match in 1999. Most of the ingredients were there: a strong South Africa, a World Cup semi-final, a score of 213 being enough to send Australia through. This version was not as heart-twitching: the final chasing pair were operating at seven wickets down rather than nine, and the game was done with 16 balls to spare rather than two. But it was close enough that a sense of the past shivered through the present, for those of an age to remember it.
Sometimes, fortune finds you where you least expect to meet it. Australia’s fast bowlers had taken three wickets in their first two overs of this World Cup, then been battered hither and yon by every opening partnership in their path for the six weeks since. South Africa had batted first five times in the tournament and scored between 311 and 428. The captains flipped and the coin fell Temba Bavuma’s way. There were sighs of South African relief, fist pumps of South African triumph. Fate was finally showing a hint of kindness.
Pat Cummins said resignedly that he had also wanted to bat. But conditions in Kolkata were also a different world to the one this tournament has occupied. Expecting rain, the whole playing surface was covered before the game in white tarpaulins, looking more ice rink than cricket field. As if in sympathy, the air was almost cool, not the bain-marie that most bowling sides have stewed in. The sun was nowhere to be seen. The sky bore as much smog as cloud, in the manner of India’s choked megalopolises throughout this tournament, but in the humidity the ball spoke.
There was swing for Mitchell Starc, seam for Josh Hazlewood, and things for both just clicked. Starc got his lines right, threatening off stump and the channel just outside it, drawing first Bavuma’s edge then Aiden Markram’s. In between, Hazlewood hit his length, not bowling a single ball that could be driven. As soon as one looked close, Quinton de Kock tried to smash it over mid-on but sent it up. Cummins came in, ran back, the task of searching for a white ball hanging in that dirty laundry sky, and took it tumbling back, celebrating before he hit the ground.
Ten runs from the first eight overs, the tension unbearable. In the meantime the fielding was the best it had been across the whole show, diving inside the circle and turning pressure-releasing fours into pressure-increasing nones. There was Travis Head doing it, there was Marnus Labuschagne. David Warner twice at cover point, to his right and then to his left. Warner with the catch at backward point, hurling himself across spectacularly, after Josh Inglis produced an initial good catch behind the stumps. There was precision, energy, that whirring hum of well-maintained machinery.
Rassie van der Dussen poked ineffectively at 30 deliveries before desperation took over, driving at the 31st. Again Hazlewood had not offered the length to invite it. Straight to Steve Smith at slip. It was 24 for four. South Africa’s mighty bat-first plan, the calm laying of the base for David Miller and Heinrich Klaasen to use to stage a smash-up at the end, was done for. It would be strategy on the run. After 11.5 overs of perfection, the game was already Australia’s to lose.
Of course, it didn’t pan out that easily. As it turned out, 45 minutes of delay for phantom rain worked in South Africa’s favour, giving their batters time to get the headlights out of their eyes and recompose themselves. Miller and Klaasen improvised a different job, and did it well. Miller’s 101 was a top-class effort of resistance. But that initial burst was still the difference. It left South Africa so far behind the game that they were always scrabbling to catch up, back to that eventual and seemingly inevitable 212.
Just as the initial batting burst from Head and Warner made all the difference in the chase: 60 in six overs, well over a quarter of the target wiped off before the bowling team could again blink themselves clear of the glare. Kagiso Rabada being taken for three sixes in an over, the most expensive of his career. South Africa’s spinners ran Australia close, but without enough to defend.
From that comes one theme that Australia can take into Sunday’s final against India. A burst of brilliance, a period of complete focus, can disrupt even the most well set teams. They can fight back but it may not be enough. The symbolism with 1999 can only be stretched so far: Cummins bashed the winning delivery for four instead of two, taking the winning score to 215 instead of 213. It was the least consequential of many things that were not perfect for Australia, but things that in the end didn’t matter because enough went right.