Editor’s note: This article was originally published in the build-up to 2019 World Cup in the countdown of the greatest moments in the tournament’s history. You can read the entire series here.
If South African cricket has given us the greatest fielder of all time – Jonty Rhodes – it has also given us the most famous dropped catch the game has ever seen. The one by Herschelle Gibbs, of course. Yes, if there’s ever an award for the greatest dropped catch, it’ll most likely go to Gibbs for his effort, or the lack of it, during the Super Sixes match against Australia in the 1999 World Cup.
Australia are the only country to win a hat-trick of ICC World Cups. From 1999 to 2007, they were crowned world champions thrice and dominated the sport much like Clive Lloyd’s West Indies did in years gone by. But the start of their rein in limited-overs – the triumph at the 1999 World Cup – was aided by a generous dose of luck.
A little before that run-out of Allan Donald won them the semi-final, the Australian team struck good fortune in their last Super Sixes match against South Africa. Waugh’s men needed to win that game to leapfrog Zimbabwe and earn their spot in the last four. And as much as the skipper’s century helped their cause, so did a gift by Gibbs.
Here’s what happened
Proteas captain Hansie Cronje won the toss and elected to bat first at Headingley, Leeds. They put on a daunting total of 271/7 from their 50 overs thanks largely to a brilliant 101 off 134 balls by none other than Gibbs himself.
At the halfway stage of the match, the South Africans, having already secured their place in the semi-finals, must’ve felt confident of knocking the Australians out. They were the favourites heading into the tournament and had an enviable pace attack in Allan Donald, Shaun Pollock, Steve Elworthy and Lance Klusener.
Cronje and his men even managed to get just the start they were looking for with the ball and reduced their opponents to 48/3 in the 12th over. However, that’s when Waugh got together with Ricky Ponting and the tide started to turn.
The duo went about resurrecting the chase, with Waugh being the aggressor. He hit a flurry of boundaries to bring the required run-rate down and at the end of the 30th over, Australia had reached 149/3. The next over is when the World Cup, as we would find out in the days to come, slipped out of South Africa’s hands.
The final delivery of the 31st over was a length ball by Klusener. Waugh went into the shot – a flick off his pads – too early and the ball took his inside edge before lobbing gently towards mid-wicket. Gibbs moved slightly to his right and caught hold of the ball, but only for a fraction of a second, before trying to toss it up in celebration and losing control of it in the process.
It was as ridiculous a dropped catch as one could imagine. For many in the stadium, it took a while to understand what had happened. Gibbs had actually thrown away the ball after securing it in his grasp. Cronje tried to reason with the umpires briefly but he, along with every other player on the field, knew that it wasn’t a legitimate catch.
Aussies find a way to the title
In that moment, the South Africans knew they were in deep trouble. And rightly so. Waugh had played a sublime knock up until then and he didn’t look back after his reprieve. The right-hander remained unbeaten on 120 off 110 to take his team over the line with two balls to spare. When Gibbs had dropped him, Australia needed 120 off 114. Had he been dismissed at that time, the South Africans would’ve been well on top. But it wasn’t to be for the perennial under-achievers of the game.
In the semi-final four days later, Australia got the better of South Africa once again. This time with the help of a tie they stole off the last ball. Their victory in the Super Sixes clash meant they got to qualify for the final, which they went on to win comfortably against Pakistan. Their second World Cup triumph may not have been achieved had Gibbs held on to that catch.
Apart from that blunder by the South African opener, one other thing that went on to become a part of cricketing folklore was a question Waugh allegedly asked Gibbs: “How does it feel to drop the World Cup?”
As dramatic as those words sound, we may never truly know what was said on the field that day at Headingley. One thing is for certain, though, Gibbs’ misfortune gave us a World Cup moment for the ages.
Watch that famous dropped catch here: