Uncertain start

They were never quite sure how it would pan out.

The ICC were feeling their way around the tournament … hesitating, apprehensive.

They needed funds. Mainly to evangelise cricket. And the money-making maestro in Jagmohan Dalmiya, the newly elected president of ICC, argued for such a tournament involving all the Test-playing nations. Nothing generated revenue like a high-profile tournament.

Yet, they were not quite ready to take the full plunge. They debated endlessly about the venue. Sharjah was suggested, and then even the Disney World in Florida, before finally zeroing in on Bangladesh. They wanted to keep it short, and hence opted for the knock-out format.

Even the name was not too ambitious. No, it was not called Champions Trophy at that time. They used a rather non-committal Wills International Cup.

They were trying to make money for spreading cricket to the non-Test-playing world. However, in a curious paradox, Bangladesh, the then non-Test-playing hosts, were not allowed to participate. After all, that would stretch the tournament, making it longer. It was the first time the country had ever come close to hosting something of this stature, but they had to enjoy the show from the stands.

Much of these stands remained largely empty. No one was quite sure of the stature of the tournament, right from the organisers to the local cricket fans.

The knockout format involving only the Test playing teams created a problem. There were nine of them, and that was not a power of two. Hence, an extra match was needed, for two teams to play each other with one being knocked out and the other proceeding to the Quarter Finals.

And thus, on October 24, 1998, New Zealand faced Zimbabwe in the match dubbed as the Preliminary Quarter Final.

With stars dazzling in the rest of the teams, ready to set the grounds alight from the following round, this was by far the least lustrous of the games. At least on paper. And thus, when Alastair Campbell and Stephen Fleming walked out to toss at the Bangabandhu Stadium, even the overwhelming craze for cricket among the Bangladeshis had managed to fill only half the stadium.

A pity that, really, because what followed during the Day Night game was the most exciting bit of cricket that would be witnessed in the tournament.

A cracker of a match

The Zimbabweans batted first, and proceeding along the conventional scoring pattern of those days.

They tried to get as much as possible during the first 15 overs, and followed it with consolidation. They were more than a useful side in 1998, with Campbell opening the innings with Grant Flower, the immensely talented rookie Neil Johnson coming in one-drop, followed by Murray Goodwin, Craig Wishart along with the great Andy Flower in the middle order. The bowling was in the able hands of Heath Streak, Henry Olonga, Johnson again, and the leg-spin of Paul Strang.

That particular day, Campbell played the role of the sheet anchor, while Johnson launched a sparkling assault early on. It was followed by a characteristically classy effort from Andy Flower.

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Cruising at 211 for 3 in the 43rd over, with Campbell solid and Flower belligerent, they should probably have got a bit more. But the canny medium pace of Nathan Astle accounted for Zimbabwe’s greatest batsman, and a regular flurry of wickets towards the end rendered the final fireworks somewhat damp. In any event, Daniel Vettori bowled a fine length in the middle overs and Geoff Allott and Simon Doull sent down tidy spells towards the end.

However, propped by Campbell’s score of exactly 100 and Andy Flower’s contribution of 77 the Zimbabweans finished with 258, and that was a rather formidable total in those days before T20s and superbats.

And it looked even more imposing when Johnson sent back Matthew Bell in the fourth over. When the dangerous Astle was run out after struggling against some accurate bowling by Streak, the Zimbabwe side certainly looked on top.

There followed a recovery. Skipper Fleming was steady at one end, shunning risks but keeping the scoreboard moving with deft placements. Craig McMillan played one of his typical innings, chipping, charging, upsetting the rhythm of the bowlers, but falling just as he promised more.

The slowish pitch meant the spinners were difficult to get away. Even as Olonga proved expensive, Paul Strang spun his leg-breaks and Andy Whittall sent down several good overs of off-spin. A few overs of Goodwin’s leg-spinners were also tried.

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However, all these were countered by the experienced duo of Fleming and wicketkeeper Adam Parore. The scoring rate was steady rather than blazing, indeed boundaries were rare exceptions. But the runs were stolen and the wickets were kept intact. The tussle was keen as the middle overs were negotiated. The asking rate climbed slowly, slowly taking on dangerously steep proportions. However, there were wickets in hand, security for a late charge.

Now Fleming got out at the wrong moment. Or, with the benefit of hindsight, should we say that was the right moment?

The captain played across the line to Whittall and suddenly the pendulum shifted rather drastically. It was nearing the end of the 45th over and the Kiwis still needed 54. T20 acceleration was still some years away. The ask was a steep one. Parore was not known for big hits.

The balding, left-handed, Chris Harris, on the other hand, was a magnificent improviser. He could accelerate remarkably, and find gaps in the field almost invisible to the naked eye. Here he was taking strike, but did he have enough time?

He got into the act quickly enough. 11 runs came off the next 10 balls. And then Parore tried to strong arm Strang and sent it down the throat of Whittall. 20 balls remained, 43 runs left to be scored, and the wicketkeeper walked back for 52 scored with just one boundary to show for his efforts.

Things did not look good. Walking out was Alex Tait, a debutant. An excellent seamer in home conditions, but at best a bowler who could bat. At the end of the over, Harris had the strike. Johnson had the ball. 40 runs remained to be scored. A tough ask any day, and much more so in those days of the late 1990s.

But then Harris swung his bat. The ball flew, to the square leg boundary, to the deep mid-wicket, and then was hoisted over the covers. The youthful medium pacer was more than decent, but he disappeared around the ground. 18 came off the over, 12 of them in boundaries.

Still 22 remained off 2 overs. There were not too many people in the ground, and the ones that were did not really care for either team. Yet, the tension was enough to perch one at the edge of his seat.

Streak bowled, the heat of the moment resulting in some angry verbal exchanges. Harris launched him high, and it seemed to have bounced exactly on the rope. A six, thought the Kiwis. But the third umpire, on call from the on-field official, ruled a boundary.  Tait managed to connect the few balls he faced. 10 resulted. The Kiwis needed 12. Campbell threw the ball to Johnson.

Was that the right call? A debutant to bowl the final over?

Talented that Johnson was, he was brand new to the international arena. A year later, he would dazzle all and sundry in the World Cup. However, now nerves told on him.

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He started with a criminal offence, a no-ball. Harris connected and a single was hustled. And that was followed by Tait throwing his bat, leaving the rest to luck, fate sticking to him faithfully. The resulting inside edge passed the stumps by a whisker and raced to the fine boundary. When strike was rotated a couple of times and in the mad confusion of things a bye was run. Three were needed with a ball to go. Harris was on strike, batting on 33 from 20 balls with five boundaries.

A brace would result in a tie and the match would have to be decided through a bowl out.

Johnson bowled a length ball. If there was a flaw in his bowling it was sending down too many length balls. And Harris smashed it through extra cover for four. He had played a blinder for 37, off 21 balls, this his sixth boundary. New Zealand were through to the next round with this remarkable last ball victory, having hit 40 from the last three overs.

Sadly, very few people were in the stadium to witness the magnificent match.

Final twist

That was not all the drama though.

The ones who tarried to watch the presentation were flummoxed to hear Ravi Shastri call up Stephen Fleming to accept the Man of the Match Award.

Even the skipper was slightly amazed as he walked up. He had hit 96 quality runs, but the remarkable innings of the day had been undoubtedly played by Harris. Earlier, when Zimbabwe had batted, Harris had also sent down 10 accurate overs of his nagging slow medium fare, curbing the run rate along with Vettori.

Rumour has it that when the note was passed to Shastri, the commentator was unable to decipher the scribble. Well, with his penchant for the cliché he would have bellowed that thing about cricket being the winner.

Yes, on that day it actually was. Across the whole tournament, cricket continued as the winner. After all, $10 million were generated. Champions Trophy would not be a one-off affair.

Brief Scores:

Zimbabwe 258 for 7 in 50 overs (Alastair Campbell 100, Andy Flower 77; Geoff Allott 3 for 54) lost to New Zealand 260 for 5 in 50 overs (Stephen Fleming 96, Adam Parore 52, Chris Harris 37*) by 5 wickets with 0 balls to spare.

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