A NATION'S PRIDE: How SA pulled off first T20 World Cup

Graeme Smith (AFP)
Graeme Smith (AFP)

Believe it or not, there was a pleasing time when South Africa was de rigueur for staging major international cricket events.

While conspicuously without a sausage since, three times in some six years between 2003 and 2009, the country was chosen to host frontline ICC tournaments, beginning with the eighth edition of the 50-overs World Cup in 2003 and ending with the Champions Trophy of 2009.

The meat in the sandwich, though, if you may wish to view it that way, was 2007, the country daringly accepting the challenge of staging the first-time ICC World Twenty20 (nowadays slightly rebranded as T20 World Cup).

Remember that T20 had only arrived on the scene four years earlier - pioneered at county level in England - and it had also only been some two and a half years since the first international in the format: Australia beat trans-Tasman rivals New Zealand in mid-February 2005.

South Africa themselves had only played five, all once-off matches, with two wins (against Australia and Pakistan) and three reverses to show for their fledgling efforts.

But the burgeoning popularity of T20 meant the ICC were pretty quickly onto the idea of blooding a 12-team world jamboree - and all condensed into a claustrophobic 13 days.

Several countries barely having put a toe in the water yet in terms of T20 international matches, South Africa was among the others prepared to pitch for the tournament, with then-Cricket South Africa chief executive Gerald Majola motivating spiritedly for it.

Helping the South African pitch was that the country had already begun its own domestic Standard Bank Pro20 series with conspicuous early popularity - including novel at the time spectator initiatives like free hardhats at venues - while the major stadium-related and other infrastructure nationwide was still familiar to International Cricket Council bosses after CWC 2003.

Further motivation for staging it was that South Africa didn't appear, at the time, for at least the next eight years on the ICC's roster for hosting major tournaments (now 13 years onward from that inaugural T20 World Cup, the country still looks no closer to another big 'un for at least the next three).

CSA also accepted the invitation fully mindful of some potentially serious hazards ... among them the risky, early-spring scheduling (11-24 September, the only window deemed available by the world body).

While they opted to play matches exclusively in the three most traditional cricket metropolises of Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban, the Mother City, especially, was always going to walk a tightrope weather-wise, considering its winter rainfall pattern and the real fear of a sting in the tail in that regard.

A late, icy snap on the highveld was also not beyond the bounds of possibility, especially if an intense cold front or two were to roll in from the depths of the South Atlantic.

A tent was placed over significant parts of the Newlands playing surface in the lead-up weeks, and SuperSport Park at Centurion also placed on standby as a possible late-change venue in the event of serious weather-linked problems.

As it happily turned out, however, the country overwhelmingly dodged the weather bullet as cool to mild conditions were the norm; only one match throughout - India v minnows Scotland at Kingsmead - was a non-starter.

At the time CSA's commercial and communications manager, former Proteas seamer Steve Elworthy was installed as tournament director; he has since gone on to occupy senior positions with the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB), to be in charge of the 2019 World Cup there, and also earned an MBE for services to cricket.

"An event like this is not a straightforward 'pitch up for cricket and then go home' thing, what with your DJ booths, pyrotechnics, dancers, hard hats ... there's a lot more spectator activation and expectation than for any other form of cricket," he had told be in an extensive magazine interview a few weeks before the tournament began.

"Teams will have to buy into the fact that there are double-headers, with quick dressing-room changeovers and so on, and that it will be a tight, eventful fortnight ... there will be trying aspects; we'll have to maintain cool and calm around it. It's virgin territory ... a lot of eyes will be watching it closely worldwide."

There were other potential pitfalls, though.

The event clashed with a major distraction for the SA sporting public: the 2007 Rugby World Cup in France, which the Springboks would go on to win under John Smit's leadership.

"Several countries playing in the T20 have teams at the rugby as well ... we've done our best to tiptoe (in scheduling terms) around it," Elworthy had said.

One method was to make some ticket price categories notably cheap: fans could sit on the grass at certain grounds for as little as R20, and attendance figures were extremely decent - including full houses for key fixtures - almost throughout and despite the slightly out-of-season feel.

The tournament was helped, too, by a rip-roaring start at the Wanderers, where Chris Gayle's withering onslaught on the host nation (117 off 57 deliveries) in the opening game saw West Indies pile up 205 for six ... a pretty huge score to chase down, especially in those still infant times for the format.

Anything but unnerved, though, Graeme Smith's outfit chased it down for the loss of only two wickets and with more than two overs in hand, Herschelle Gibbs fighting fire with fire as he blasted 90 not out himself.

Quickly, too, there was a major upset as Zimbabwe beat Australia at Newlands, Brendan Taylor (bat) and Elton Chigumbura (ball) strongly to the fore.

In a tribute, perhaps, to the way pitch curators and their back-up staff rose to the occasion despite the relatively unorthodox time of year, plenty of matches were agreeably high-scoring, even if the surface at the famous Capetonian venue tended to be sluggish - and increasingly so as games developed - and few fixtures there saw totals go beyond the 150-mark.

Kingsmead got a cracker in the advanced, Super Eight phase when both India (the eventual winners by 18 runs) and England posted totals of at least 200, and Yuvraj Singh’s record, to this day, 12-ball half-century included six sixes in an over from Stuart Broad.

The Indians would go on to win the maiden global crown, beating Subcontinent arch-rivals Pakistan by five runs in the Bullring final, after the nations had earlier played out a Durban tie - with India winning the resultant bowl-out.

As much as the host country made a fine fist of hosting the tournament, Smith's national side - traditionally still jinxed or plain sub-standard in so many frontline ICC limited-overs ones - produced one of their better campaigns in that 2007 event.

Stacked with all-rounders (their squad included Messrs Kemp, Pollock, Morkel A, Van der Wath and Philander, though controversially at the time no Jacques Kallis, said to have been marginalised at the time by instruction of then-CSA president Norman Arendse) they won four of their five matches.

But their downfall was the vital last Super Eight clash with India at Kingsmead, where a disastrous chase saw them subside to a damagingly sluggish 116 for nine in a full 20 overs and be elbowed out of a semis berth on net run rate.

It was a disappointing way for Smith’s otherwise largely switched-on troops to bow out, but some consolation for South Africans in general was the kudos coming thick and fast for the country's hosting effort.

Broadly speaking, that first-time tournament was seen as having been a thoroughly redemptive exercise for the game after a torturously elongated and controversy-marred World Cup-proper in the West Indies earlier that year.

"There was an upside to the calamitous World Cup in the Caribbean," wrote Tim Wigmore, for instance, for www.espncricinfo.com. "The ICC envisaged that the first World T20 event, six months later in South Africa, would be the antithesis to the overlong, over-sanitised and utterly joyless World Cup. (It) succeeded ... for two heady weeks in South Africa, even the most ardent ICC bashers had nothing to complain about."

Cricket's annual bible, the Wisden Almanack, meanwhile, put it briefly and succinctly: "This tournament was a dream. It just got things right."

Is it a forlorn hope that there might, finally, be more of the same on our shores again one day?

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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