REMEMBERED: Proteas' only ICC major trophy success

Jacques Kallis (Mandatory Credit: Adrian  Murrell/Allsport)
Jacques Kallis (Mandatory Credit: Adrian Murrell/Allsport)
  • The inaugural Champions Trophy saw Hansie Cronje's SA outfit steamroll all foes, en route to the title in Dhaka.
  • A young, still swift-bowling Jacques Kallis lit up the tournament with both blade and ball.
  • The Proteas have almost always wilted in big white-ball jamborees subsequently.

It is a constantly discomfiting thought that South Africa, widely acknowledged as a broad cricketing superpower, have won a miserly one of the 22 ICC major limited-overs tournaments they've taken part in.

The Proteas missed out on the first four versions of the biggest deal of them all, the World Cup, but have participated in eight since the transition to democracy... and never come up trumps.

There have been six versions of the Twenty20 World Cup: again, no joy.

Thank goodness, then, for their one-from-eight-stabs title-winning record at the "other' (now supposedly extinct, though they've said this before in the halls of power) one-day tournament on record, the Champions Trophy.

Its status in an ever more cluttered global itinerary has been tenuous for a long time, and officially the ICC has now aborted it.

Yet, its popularity is perhaps underestimated: I attended a good portion of the last one, in England in 2017, and it pulled in decent crowds and commanded generous global television attention, too.

What people have always liked about the Champions Trophy is that it is shorter and more intense than the World Cup, omitting the more minor nations and having more of a strength-versus-strength feel with the best eight teams from the ODI rankings slugging it out.

If it has, indeed, vanished permanently now, a pretty solid tally of observers worldwide will consider it a shame.

Its absence simultaneously strips South Africa of the knowledge that it is the one, infernal ICC jamboree where their much-publicised jinx is slightly less painful... considering the triumph at the maiden edition back in 1998.

Under the leadership of Hansie Cronje and coaching tutelage of already massively renowned, well-travelled guru Bob Woolmer, that 14-strong squad naturally weren't to be aware then that, by mid-2020, they would remain the lone SA side to have banked one of those so-elusive trophies.

They weren't to know, either, that both key figures in leadership/direction at the Bangladesh-staged event would later die in very different circumstances, Cronje on a hillside in the Outeniqua mountains in 2002 and Woolmer in the Caribbean, as Pakistan's CWC mastermind, in 2007.

Hosted entirely in the capital Dhaka, the sixth most densely-populated city in the world, what made South Africa's success all the more praiseworthy was that it was their own first exposure to cricket conditions in the subcontinental country.

They had not yet played a bilateral series against the Tigers (who didn’t make the cut for the tournament), either home or away in Test or ODI mode; that first experience would only occur when they visited our shores in 2002/03.

But the backdrop to SA's involvement in that Champions Trophy - at the time branded the "ICC KnockOut" and from a commercial perspective the "Wills International Cup" - was promising.

Under the increasingly smart and dynamic leadership of fitness fanatic Cronje, the country had earlier that '98 year posted their first bilateral ODI series success in England, having won the Texaco Trophy by a 2-1 margin after losing a 1994 edition on those shores 2-0.

In the slightly earlier, southern summer of 1997/98, Cronje's troops had also shown their mounting mettle - including as a particularly sharp, trend-setting fielding side - by winning a three-nation Standard Bank One-Day Series on home soil.

They lost only one of six round-robin matches from three each against Pakistan and Sri Lanka, before routing the Pakistanis in the lopsided Newlands final by nine wickets, Lance Klusener's 5/25 going a long way to explaining the visitors' lamentable 114 all out.

Still, there was a lotto-like feel to the inaugural Champions Trophy: teams needed their wits about them right from the "off", given the especially short, automatic-knockout nature of it.

It began with quarter-finals, where South Africa were pitted against Adam Hollioake's England side... and Cronje and company sent out strong signals of their deeper intentions by earning a six-wicket victory with all of 20 balls to spare despite having to chase a then quite stiff-looking 282.

Hollioake’s unbeaten 83 was the foundation for the English innings, with primary success in the wickets column for their foes going to a just-turned 23-year-old Jacques Kallis (3/48).

Anyone who followed Kallis's career closely at the time (and boy, many did) would testify to the fact that the former Wynberg Boys' High School wunderkind was, at the time, pretty close to the real deal as a pure shock bowler, never mind his burgeoning exploits at the batting crease.

His natural strength in the shoulders and arms meant he could generate disconcerting lift off a decent length, and even on some of the more benign pitches of the subcontinent.

South Africa made pleasingly near-effortless, well-rounded work of the pursuit, Daryll Cullinan lashing 69 as an opening batsman in a century first-wicket partnership with Mike Rindel - it was a role the stylish Cullinan would fill in 10 innings of his 138-ODI career - and Cronje and Jonty Rhodes both getting scores in the 60s as well.

The semi-final against Sri Lanka was to prove considerably more one-sided in SA's favour... and a little unexpectedly so, considering that they were playing the defending World Cup champions (from 1996) in conditions not unlike their own.

In a slightly rain-reduced game, Cronje and company amassed 240 for seven, with Kallis this time coming to the fore with the blade as he struck his third of an eventual 17 career centuries in ODIs: 113 not out at No 5, off exactly 100 deliveries.

Fast-medium bowler Steve Elworthy, now a celebrated senior administrator in England, and ebullient off-spinner Pat Symcox then got among the Sri Lankan batsmen - three scalps apiece - as they were bundled out for 132 and a comprehensive defeat.

South Africa's opponents in the showpiece match, on November 1, were West Indies, already in noticeable, overall decline from their glittering heyday of the 1970s and 1980s but slightly surprise packages here: they'd seen off Pakistan and India in that order.

Cronje chose to insert the Caribbean team (led by dashing left-hander Brian Lara) and the strong tournament form of opener Philo Wallace, the flamboyant Barbadian, only continued as he made the lion's share of their runs.

Wallace's solitary century (103) in a 33-cap career came off 102 balls, but when he was dismissed (stumped by Mark Boucher, standing up to medium-paced Cronje) in the 35th over (180/4) the West Indies failed lamentably to retain their relative mojo.

That man Kallis leapt to the forefront yet again: entering the attack unusually as its seventh element, the all-rounder was hugely responsible for the Windies' subsidence to 245 all out as he grabbed 5/30 - the premier figures of his entire, mammoth 328-ODI career.

Derek Crookes chipped in with the vital scalp of Lara for only 11, while Symcox, who had opened the bowling, warranted great credit for leaking just 29 runs in a full 10-over stint.

Cullinan and Rindel dispelled any likelihood of pronounced nerves in the chase, posting a half-century stand upfront, and then Cronje's calm, measured 61 not out ensured a clear-cut four-wicket triumph... and the deserved tournament booty for South Africa.

Kallis earning player-of-the-tournament (most wickets, eight at 14.00, and second most runs behind Wallace) was the cherry on top of a really memorable little period in the Proteas' post-isolation saga, even if the feat stopped just short of justifying open-top metro bus parades on homecoming.

Right there and then, an ICC silverware hoodoo for the country seemed a distant, unlikely scenario...

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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