South Africa's Dream Run Dashed by an Absurd Rule in 1992 World Cup

When play resumed, under the Least Productive Over rule, two overs had been lost. As per the rule, the two overs that could be deducted from the South Africa's chase were that of Meyrick Pringle

One of the most iconic images of the 1992 World Cup is the one of a scoreboard reading South Africa to win need 22 runs off 1 ball. The pecuniary considerations that resulted in the much-slammed scoreboard that brought about a tame exit of South Africa from the tournament only was a microcosm of what the rainbow nation has had to endure under the notorious apartheid regime. While many say South Africa would have won the match, but for the rain and the stringent rule, modern analyses say that were the Duckworth Lewis System employed back then, the Proteas still would have fallen short. But, cricket being the game of uncertainties it is, who knows what could have transpired.

For those of you that haven’t watched Invictus starring Matt Damon and Morgan Freeman, my advice: watch it. The movie depicts in vivid detail the resurrection of South Africa under Nelson Mandela after the dark ages of the Apartheid era through sports in general, and Rugby in particular. When South Africa debuted in the 1992 edition of the cricket World Cup, it was a living testimony to what havoc a state-sponsored discrimination on racial lines could wreak on the collective psyche of the people. The sole player in that team fielded by the rainbow nation to have had any global cricketing exposure was its captain Keppler Wessels, and that, too, by the virtue of having played for Australia for close to a decade.

Late entry and a dashing start

The late entry of South Africa prompted a reschedule of the tournament, with the administrators having to add eight extra matches. This rescheduling gave extra powers to the broadcaster, much to the detriment of South African fortunes, as we shall learn later. So when South Africa faced off with Australia, the odds were heavily stacked against the debutante. Australia, the 1987 champion, were not willing to cede an inch. Moreover, the unheralded pace attack of the Proteas, comprising Alan Donald, Meyrick Pringle, Richard Snell and Brian Macmillan, was raw and doubts over their capabilities were rife. However, this unheralded pace battery limited the famed batting line up of the defending champions to 170-9 in 49 overs. Riding on a patient 81 not out from Wessels, South Africa galloped to the target with nine wickets in hand. David had felled Goliath. South Africa had lit the stage up. After 22 years in exile, they could not have asked for a better comeback.

Respite for Wessels

The opposition to Wessels leading the team to the World Cup prior to the tournament’s start was high pitched. The fans back home wanted domestic stars to lead the pack, but Wessels pipped them to the post. None had appreciated this, and supporters thought of Wessels as nothing more than an upstart. But when they prevailed over Australia in the opening encounter, there was a respite in attack against him for his slow batting and over defensive leadership. Wessels sigh of relief was to be short short-lived.

Crowe and his upstarts

In the next match South Africa was pitted against the upstarts led by Martin Crowe, whose experiments with the white ball cricket like opening the bowling with a spinner or sending a pinch hitter to exploit the 15-over fielding restrictions had already taken the world by storm. In a nutshell, the Kiwis were the firm favourites. The nagging length the Kiwi bowlers stuck to undid all grandiose plans of the South Africans, who could muster only 190-7 in 50 overs, with Peter Kirsten top scoring with a sedate 90. In reply, Mark Greatbatch and Rod Latham unleashed a flurry of strokes and scaled down the target with over 15 overs left. Mark Greatbatch scored a splendid 68, while Latham, whose son Tom Latham represented the Black Caps in the 2019 edition, scored a timely 60, to hand the Kiwis a seven wicket victory.

The next match too did not bring much luck to the Africans, with Sri Lanka edging them out in a tight game to win by 3 wickets on the penultimate ball of the contest. At one stage the Africans were at a cozy 114-1, but some disciplined Sri Lankan bowling left them all out for a paltry 195. After a disastrous start, Roshan Mahanama and Arjuna Ranatunga combined to take Sri Lanka home. Arjuna Ranatunga topped his bowling performance of 2-26 with a belligerent 64 not out to walk home with the player of the match award.

The back-to-back defeats triggered a fresh wave of backlash back home, with speculation on the cricketing team being a flash in the pan gaining traction. It did not help the matters that South Africa’s solitary win had come against Australia, which indeed was a pale shadow of its former self. It’s in times of crises that the mettle of a man is tested; while lesser men would have jumped into depths of oblivion from the precipice of ignominy they were balancing themselves on, the South Africans were made of sterner stuff. They proved it and how.

Do or die

The next game became a do or die venture for the team. It was a battle of attrition from the start. Peter Kirsten again top scored with a patient 56 to help South Africa crawl to a respectable 200-8 in 50 overs. West Indies had in its ranks Desmond Haynes, Brian Lara and Carl Hooper, to name a few. South Africa's fate was seemingly sealed. However, Meyrick Pringle, that miserly fast bowler who preceded McGrath when it came to probing a nagging length with watertight overs, conceded just 11 runs in eight overs, comprising four maidens and four wickets, to stop the Carribean juggernaut . West Indies ran out of fuel in 39th over and were dismissed for 136. South Africa had won by 64 runs. Flash in the pan anyone?

It's a bird, it's superman

In its encounter with Pakistan, South Africa was again let down by the batting department. With Peter Kirsten not playing, the Proteas managed a sub par 211-7 in 50 overs; Andrew Hudson top scored with 54. With rain interrupting the play, Pakistan were set 194 for victory in 36 overs. Here, too, the target was set using the least productive over rule. Had the Duckworth Lewis method been employed, the target for Pakistan would have been 162. A blinder of a start by Amir Sohail ensured Pakistan were not lagging on run rate. At 135-2, with Inzamamul Haq making a mockery of the balling attack with his disdainful stroke play, the Pakistanis were coasting along. At this point, Inzamam tried to work a ball to the leg side. However, it hit him on the pads and rebounded towards backward square. Inzamam set off for a run, but was turned back by the nonstriker. By the time Inzamam could turn around and reach safety, the fielder at backward point had snared the ball and in a flash was swooping down on the wickets. With no one to back his throw, the fielder ran towards the stumps, made a full length dive to dismantle the timbers to run out Inzamam. Jonty Rhodes had arrived. The course of the match was changed and Pakistan were left gasping for 20 runs. South Africa was alive, and kicking.

Revival and failure

If Peter Kirsten was hitherto providing top-order stability to the Africans, in their match against Zimbabwe he went on to prove that he was more than adequate with the ball, too, by claiming 3-31. Though the Zimbabweans had their moments, they were no match to the resurgent African neighbours. Riding on a typically sedate and solid 70 from skipper Wessels, South Africa chased down the 164 run target with five overs and seven wickets to spare. In their encounter with the English team, who were a serious contender, South African openers Keppler Wessels and Andrew Hudson took the game by the scruff of its neck and posted a mammoth 151 for the first wicket before a Graeme Hick special stopped them in their tracks. Hick, widely regarded as the greatest underperformer the game has seen, with his military medium pace removed both the openers to restrict them to 236-4 in 50 overs. However, Hick was not to star for England with the bat. The day belonged to the ever-reliable Alec Stewart, who scored a magnificent 77, and Neil Fairbrother with a 75 not out. A late cameo of 33 off 22 balls by Chris Lewis settled the affair and England coasted home with a delivery to spare to reach the target of 226-7 in 40.5 overs in a rain-curtailed match. South Africa's dream run was under threat, again.

Back on track

It was at this juncture that South Africa met India in another rain-affected match. Curtailed to 30 overs a side match, India batted first to score 180-6, thanks largely to Mohammad Azharuddin’s stoic 77 and Kapil Dev’s 29-ball 42-run cameo. However, Africans came out all guns blazing. Andrew Hudson and Peter Kirsten put on 128 for the first wicket to all but seal the match in South Africa’s favour. Though a few wickets fell in quick succession, Wessels and future captain Hansie Kronje took them home with six wickets and five balls to spare. With five wins out of eight encounters, South Africa had qualified for the knockouts.

Least Productive Over Rule

Before continuing, it is essential to note that throughout the tournament, rain was the dark horse. Many a match was curtailed or abandoned with heavens playing the spoilsport. While Pakistan were being pushed around, a turnaround of sorts came in the form of rains. All out for 74 in 40 overs, they were staring down the barrel when rain ended England’s chase at 23-1. Each team came out with a point apiece. That point came in handy when the overall picture was assessed. Pakistan pushed out Australia based on the extra point derived from the England bout. So when all eyes were set on the semi finals between South Africa and England, there was hope in the air. Most expected a South Africa versus New Zealand final. However, man proposes, cricket disposes.

The Absurdity

When South Africa took on England in the semifinals, it was indeed David taking on Goliath. England had a strong pace battery and an array of military medium attackers. Their openers were in good form, middle order was flashily strong, with Graeme Hick leading the pack and there was enough firepower down the order. And South Africa, they had the spirit. Though the underdog, they were in with a fair chance, with their own openers firing, pace attack being superlative and fielding electric. Riding on Graeme Hick’s sensational 83 off 90 balls, England were poised strong when rains came. The scoreboard read 252-6 in 45 overs. England innings never resumed. The star of the bowling attack was again paceman Meyrick Pringle, who returned with 2-36 off nine overs, of which two were maidens. The Proteas would go on to rue those two maiden overs later.

Chasing, South Africa were in the hunt for better part of the proceedings. All contributed to make South Africa reach 206-6. They required only 47 runs when MacMillan and Dav Richardson joined hands to take them to 231 in 42.5 overs when rain interrupted play. They required 22 runs off 13 balls. When play resumed, under the Least Productive Over rule, two overs had been lost. As per the rule, the two overs that could be deducted from the South Africa's chase were that of Meyrick Pringle. Remember, he had bowled two maidens. When the scores were tallied, minus the 12 runless balls of Pringle, South Africa were left to chase 22 runs off one ball. Chris Lewis bowled the last ball, Macmillan tapped it for a single and South Africans were thrown out by an illogical rule.

Those were the days before the Duckworth Lewis method had become common. Critics argue that had DL method been employed, South Africa would have been set 273 in 50 overs and then 257 off 43 overs, both beyond the reach of the Africans. But cricket is a funny game, and the way Macmillan and Richardson were batting, it could have gone either way. Moreover, for the knockouts, a reserve day had been accommodated. However, due to the pressure exerted by the broadcaster Channel 9, the administrators are forced to ensure that the match did not spill over to the reserve day. Had they not succumbed to pressure from the broadcasters, who knows what would have transpired. Incidentally, the channel was owned by Kerry Packer, widely believed as the father of Limited Overs cricket.