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DANIEL GALLAN: The ghosts of chokes past: What the 99 WC semi-final means today

The sun pokes through the Birmingham clouds and plays dappled shadow games on the pristine carpet of green at the Edgbaston Cricket Ground. South African and New Zealand cricketers go through their warm-ups ahead of their World Cup clash on Wednesday. Ground staff busy themselves mowing the pitch and painting the sponsors’ logos. A gentle breeze blows across the vacant stands.

High up in the impressive press box, my view is one of the serenity of calm. But had I been here twenty years ago to the day, I would have been unable to look at the carnage unfolding. It was on this ground that Allan Donald dropped his bat and refused to run while Lance Klusener did the exact opposite, culminating in a run-out that changed South African cricket forever.

I was in primary school then. Watching that match in my parents’ lounge I experienced the full spectrum of emotions a sports fan can feel. Still young and naive, I had grown accustomed to national glory. The Springboks in 1995 and Bafana Bafana in 1996 had conditioned me to expect my heroes proudly sporting the rainbow coloured flag to secure victory. I viewed those athletes through a prism of good versus evil. They were not merely cricketers. They were noble warriors vanquishing foes in the name of righteousness.

And then Donald dropped his bat. I sat slack-jawed and cold, unable to understand what had transpired. Something didn’t compute. This wasn’t meant to be.

Walking around Edgbaston today offers no acknowledgement of those harrowing scenes. There are no photos, at least none that aren’t covered by ICC banners, that pay homage to that tied match between the Proteas and Australia. There are no statues of Klusener rushing off the field or of Hansie Cronje’s crestfallen face. No inscription honours the pain. No plaque bears witness. Here, the scars of trauma are buried beneath the surface, remembered only by those who cannot forget.

I am not sure in how many articles I have referenced that semi-final. I’ve spoken extensively with Donald and Klusener on a number of occasions, searching for meaning from those who vibrated in the eye of the storm.

I crossed the divide and interviewed Damien Fleming, the man who bowled the final over and who played a pivotal role in that decisive run-out. I’ve committed hours to podcasts on the subject. To call my relationship with that match an obsession is not as hyperbolic as it might seem.

History is a series of falling dominoes. One event unfolds and tumbles into the next one and the chain reaction plays out for eternity. Everything is connected. Stand on a butterflies wing a millennium ago and all of human history changes.

How would the story of South African cricket have unfolded had Donald and Klusener kept their cool for one more ball? Earlier in the over, ‘Zulu’ had belted the ball for two screaming fours through the covers to tie the game. For the previous four weeks, he had been the world’s best player, obliterating bowling attacks as if he’d descended from a higher league.

Had he not let the occasion get to him, had Fleming bowled one more ball in the slot, had Venus and Mars not been in conjunction later that evening, what might have been?

Perhaps South Africa go on to win the Cricket World Cup, beating Pakistan for the second time in the competition. With a medal safely stored back home, perhaps Cronje does not allow his unfortunate love of money poison his judgement and lead him into temptation. Perhaps the experience of winning a World Cup leads to more World Cup success. Perhaps no one ever calls them chokers. Perhaps the legacy of 1999 inspires the then 57-year-old Jacob Zuma to use his political influence to develop the game in rural Kwa-Zulu Natal, establishing a legacy that elevates the sport’s mass appeal. History is a series of falling dominoes with the potential to land in an infinite number of ways.

None of these South African in this current squad was here when calamity struck. Imran Tahir, the oldest player in the camp, was a young 20-year upstart representing the Water and Power Development Authority XI in Pakistan. “That game was crucial for the guys at that stage,” said Ngidi, the youngest of the fifteen who was just three years old back then. “I don’t think it has any effect on us now.”

And yet the ghosts of ’99 still hover in the corners of this famous ground. Unexorcised demons lurk beneath the surface, invisible but ever-present, haunting any South African fan foolish enough to pick at old wounds.

Daniel Gallan is a freelance cricket correspondent for Eyewitness News based in the UK. Follow him on Twitter @danielgallan

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