It had to be 213. Not, say, 83 which looked so likely after South Africa were 24/4. Or 207, because who else can hit a monstrous six after David Miller holes out at deep square-leg? Say hello to Kagiso Rabada. Australia must be thanking their stars for Travis Head who is hardwired to bat just one way. But this wasn’t for the faint-hearted, warned South Africa when Tabraiz Shamsi skidded out Marnus Labuschagne and Glenn Maxwell before taking off on a never-ending celebratory sprint. Once Steve Smith speared Gerald Coetzee, South Africa knew they were in with a real chance.
Now say hello to Pat Cummins. Overlook that economy of 5.27 even though he did take three wickets, including that of Miller. But set in folklore now is that catch of Quinton de Kock—pedalling backwards, eyes peeled on the ball, catching it and then holding onto it for dear life even when he had to take a tumble. Equally legendary now is his 29-ball vigil, guiding Australia from 193/7 to their eighth World Cup final appearance with a boundary off Jansen. Kolkata didn’t go back in time to become Birmingham but at least South Africa didn’t lose before losing.
Their eventual three-wicket defeat helped Australia set up a final against India. It will see two sides that last clashed in the final in 2003, face-off in the big match to win the original World Cup.
Adversity knocked on South Africa’s doors with a testing opening powerplay that yielded only 18 runs at the expense of Quinton de Kock and Temba Bavuma. Under heavily overcast Kolkata skies with the new ball, two slips and a wide gully, Australia had South Africa quaking in their boots with disciplined lines and out-of-the-world fielding. Only 16 boundaries were hit in the entire innings, the first of which came only in the ninth over when Aiden Markram flicked a rare Mitchell Starc loose delivery. Once Josh Hazlewood was finally done bowling a splendid opening spell of 6-1-12-2, he had exacted 25 dots, with seven of the 12 runs conceded coming off edges and false shots.
When Miller came, South Africa had six wickets in hand and 38 overs left to play. When he was finally dismissed, 16 balls remained after he added 179 runs in four partnerships. Only twice before this has Miller batted longer than this but never in a match of so much consequence. He had able company too. Once the innings was steadied a bit, Heinrich Klaasen declared war on Adam Zampa with two towering sixes. Another full toss from Zampa deposited in the second tier, this time by Miller, and South Africa knew who to target again. By the end of the innings, six of the eight sixes in South Africa’s innings had come against Zampa.
None of those came easy though. Klaasen and Marco Jansen departing in consecutive balls made the 31st over South Africa’s banana peel. But Miller took Coetzee under his wings to orchestrate a neat 53-run stand till they didn’t review a caught-behind of Coetzee. Miller still marched on, taking the game deep with Keshav Maharaj, carving probably the most valuable hundred in the history of South African cricket. This wasn’t just the first hundred to be ever hit by a South African in World Cup knockouts, this was an innings of resilience, of hope, an emphatic challenge to the narrative that South Africa just don’t have the nerve for this level.
They battled, and how. When Rassie van der Dussen literally hung in the air Jonty Rhodes style to pluck out Mitchell Marsh, Eden Gardens started heaving and humming. First ball of his first spell, Maharaj cleaned up Head and the stands erupted. Eight away from victory, Australia plunged into trouble when Labuschagne missed a reverse sweep off Shamsi. All premeditation on a difficult pitch, it was only a matter of time before Maxwell too was dismissed. Only Smith had the application to shepherd the innings. And he was doing his job too, leaving, weaving out of tempting balls, edging and getting beaten till Coetzee set him up with a wide, leaving delivery.
No stranger to such situations—Cummins had calmly led Australia to a two-wicket Ashes Test win earlier this year—the Australia captain started playing the balls on merit. As did Starc. With more than adequate balls remaining, the onus was on South Africa to attack. And as luck would have it, catches were dropped too as they kept pushing for another breakthrough. It didn’t come.
But in hindsight, that isn’t where they had lost the match.
Those first six overs, when Head–who also took the wickets of Klaasen and Jansen—and Warner blasted 60 runs, made all the difference in the end. Jansen bowled wide after wide but when he kept the ball on the stumps, Warner and Head took turns to cart them away. Rabada too wasn’t spared, conceding three sixes in the sixth over before Warner was finally castled by Aiden Markram. By then though, Australia had enough momentum to power a tricky chase.