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When cricket was played at the Commonwealth Games

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Commonwealth_games_cricketThe 21st Commonwealth Games have just ended in Gold Coast, Australia, which saw the best sporting talent from Commonwealth nations in action. Cricket – one of the lasting legacies of the British Empire – continues to stay away from the quadrennial event, even though almost all of the leading cricketing nations are members of the Commonwealth.

However, cricket did make a one-off appearance at the Games, back in 1998 in Kuala Lumpur. Interestingly, the matches were not considered to be of official international standard – they were only allotted List A status in spite of quite a few top players taking part in the event.

Sixteen nations were divided into four groups to decide the semi-finalists. Since only sovereign Commonwealth countries were permitted, the West Indies saw themselves divided into three teams: Jamaica, Barbados and Antigua and Barbuda. Ironically, England were conspicuous by their absence – the denouement of the county championship was of greater importance to them. Every other Test nation took part.

Besides the regular underdogs, Malaysia were represented as well, as they were the hosts. The groups read as follows:- Group A – Sri Lanka, Jamaica, Zimbabwe, Malaysia; Group B – Australia, India, Antigua and Barbuda, Canada; Group C – South Africa, Barbados, Bangladesh, Northern Ireland; Group D – Pakistan, New Zealand, Kenya, Scotland.

Most of the contingents sent a mix of leading and little-known names. Australia, with the likes of Steve Waugh, Adam Gilchrist and Michael Bevan, were perhaps the strongest side, and had the bulk of the squad that was to win the World Cup in England the following year. India had Sachin Tendulkar, VVS Laxman and Anil Kumble among their ranks.

New Zealand had Stephen Fleming and Nathan Astle; South Africa had Jacques Kallis, Shaun Pollock and Mark Boucher. Zimbabwe had the services of Andy and Grant Flower, while the legendary Curtly Ambrose turned out for his native Antigua and Barbuda. The event was contested from September 9 to September 19, 1998, and was played across six venues. Most of the matches were characterized by low scores and run-making was often a difficult task.

Played in the 50-over format, the competition in the event was expected to be among the top teams, and so it happened. The group stage saw Sri Lanka, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand finish as the stand-out teams. This quartet easily qualified for the semi-finals by remaining unbeaten in their respective groups. Australia, led by Steve Waugh, signaled their intent to win the gold medal (sounds strange for cricket, doesn’t it?) from the outset.

Australia bundled Canada out for 60, Antigua and Barbuda for 99 and India for 109 en route to three big wins. Pacer Damien Fleming – who ended up the top wicket-taker with 14 victims – and left-arm spinner Brad Young (who scalped 4/23 against India) were the best performing bowlers, with Fleming’s 5/24 against the Antiguans being the best bowling figures. Steve Waugh scored 100* against India, one of only three hundreds in the tournament.

Sri Lanka and New Zealand were equally dominant. The Sri Lankans were spearheaded by opener Avishka Gunawardene, the tournament’s highest run scorer with a tally of 234, including 107 against Jamaica, which was the tournament’s highest individual score. New Zealand was led from the front by Fleming, who scored 102 against Scotland.

Zimbabwe (who made the only score of above 300, i.e. 309/5 against Malaysia) threatened to knock Sri Lanka out, but a thrilling one-wicket win saw the Islanders sneak into the final four. South Africa had to see off a spirited challenge from Barbados before making to the semi-finals. Northern Ireland had the satisfaction of beating Bangladesh, who were bowled out for just 63. Canada’s 45 against India was the lowest total.

The first semi-final saw South Africa record a nail-biting one-wicket win against Sri Lanka. After being bowled out for 130 thanks to Nicky Boje’s 4/16, Sri Lanka had the Proteas on the mat at 96/9, before an unbeaten 35-run last-wicket stand between Boje and Alan Dawson sealed the game .

The second semi-final was a completely one-sided affair. The clinical Australians skittled New Zealand out for a paltry 58 in 26.4 overs. No batsman crossed twenty, as Young recorded stunning figures of 4-2-4-4, aided by Fleming’s 3/23. To complete the humiliation, Australia chased down the total in just 10. 5 overs to win by nine wickets. New Zealand salvaged some pride by beating Sri Lanka by 51 runs in the third-place playoff to win the bronze medal.

Thus, Australia and South Africa – the two strongest sides on paper – made the final. After losing the toss, Steve Waugh showed his worth yet again with an unbeaten 90, even as wickets fell around him. He rescued Australia from 58/4 to an eventual 183 in 49.3 overs. Captain Pollock was the wrecker-in-chief with 4/19.

In reply, the South African openers Andrew Hudson and Mike Rindel (who made 67) put together 73 in just 12.1 overs. Darren Lehmann (3/14) provided Australia with a late spark through his part-time spin, but it hardly deterred South Africa, who reached 184/6 with four overs to spare, to win the gold medal.

A month later, South Africa, under Hansie Cronje, won the inaugural Champions Trophy (known as the Wills International Cup), and were favorites in the 1999 World Cup until they were heartbreakingly knocked out on net run-rate after a tied semi-final against Australia.

It remains to be seen whether cricket makes a comeback to the Commonwealth Games in the near future. The 2022 Games will be held in Birmingham, and cricket does have an outside chance to be included. If at all cricket is to return to the Games, T20 seems to be the only viable format. The big question is, will the powers-that-be display the keenness to showcase cricket at major global sporting events? Or will they consider the prospect as an exercise in futility?

 

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Rustom Deboo is a cricket aficionado and freelance writer from Mumbai. He is an ardent devotee of T...

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