Feature

No glitz, no glamour for cricket’s lone outing at the Commonwealth Games

With second-string teams and under-prepared pitches, cricket made its only Commonwealth Games appearance in 1998. South Africa won the gold medal.

By Aarish Ansari ·

What’s common between badminton star Saina Nehwal, boxing world champion Mary Kom, and cricketers Jacques Kallis and Shaun Pollock?

A gold medal at the Commonwealth Games.

It’s a little known fact that cricket was a medal event at the 1998 Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur, which remains the sport’s only appearance at the event to date.

However, cricket will be returning to the CWG in the next edition - Birmingham 2022 - in the form of a women’s Twenty20 tournament. The Indian women’s cricket team has already qualified for the event, joining hosts England, Australia, New Zealand, Pakistan and South Africa.

The 1998 edition, the first Commonwealth Games to be held in Asia, featured the men’s teams competing in the 50-over format but the matches were not accorded the status of One Day Internationals (ODI).

Cricket was played at six venues in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia during the 1998 Commonwealth Games.

Cricket at the 1998 Commonwealth Games

Sixteen countries, divided into groups of four, participated in the 11-day cricket event. Each team would play the other three in their group once, with two points given for a win, and the topper from each group would proceed to the semi-finals.

The heavyweights of cricket - India, Australia, South Africa, Sri Lanka, New Zealand and Pakistan were part of the event. But a few did not field full-strength squads due to the clash of dates with other cricket tournaments. This included India and Pakistan, who were also playing the Sahara Cup in Canada simultaneously.

Caribbean countries Jamaica, Barbados, and Antigua and Barbuda competed as separate teams instead of a collective West Indies team as seen in international cricket.

England did not send a team, committing their players to the County Championship instead.

Unusually, the teams did not don coloured jerseys but instead wore white uniforms and did not carry any sponsor logos.

Teams at the 1998 Commonwealth Games

Group A: Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe, Jamaica, Malaysia

Group B: Australia, Antigua and Barbuda, India, Canada

Group C: South Africa, Barbados, Northern Ireland, Bangladesh

Group D: New Zealand, Pakistan, Kenya, Scotland

West Indies’ legendary fast bowler Curtly Ambrose played for Antigua and Barbuda at the 1998 Commonwealth Games.

Hot, humid and no VIP treatment

It was a unique experience for the cricketers at the Commonwealth Games.

Unlike the routine star treatment given worldwide, the cricketers lived with other participants at the Games Village in Vista Komanwel.  

“Life in the village was very different to the usual hotel fare that we were used to but it made a welcome change,” South African captain Shaun Pollock wrote in a column on ESPN Cricinfo.

There was no room service and players had to dine at the common cafeteria.

The matches were played at six venues in Kuala Lumpur, namely Royal Selangor Club, Victoria Institute, Kelab Aman, Tenaga National Sports Complex, Perbadanan Kemajuan Negeri Selangor (PKNS) and Rubber Research Institute.

The cricketers fretted about the quality of pitches since the organisers only had a year to prepare them. As a result, the tournament was a low-scoring affair with teams even struggling to score 200 runs in most matches.

It was also incredibly humid. Batsmen called for cold towels when they could during breaks. And in one match, India’s Amay Khurasiya was carried from the field on a stretcher after he fainted in the testing conditions.

Gavin Robertson of Australia shelters from the sun.

“It was so humid, I had never experienced anything like it,” Sri Lanka’s Suresh Perera told Cricbuzz. “The humidity was far worse than I had ever experienced in Sri Lanka and I just couldn't take it.”

Australia, South Africa, New Zealand and Sri Lanka were the top teams from each group, making the final four.

The Indian cricket team, despite boasting of Sachin Tendulkar, Harbhajan Singh, Anil Kumble and captain Ajay Jadeja in their ranks, had an underwhelming campaign, finishing a lowly ninth.

Australia defeated neighbours New Zealand in a low-scoring, one-sided first semi-final while South Africa edged past Sri Lanka in a thriller to book a place in the final.

Commonwealth Games 1998 cricket final

A total of 7,532 people flocked to the PKNS Stadium, a record for cricket in Malaysia back then, to watch the final between title-favourites Australia and underdogs South Africa.

“Going into the final we had nothing to lose,” remembered Shaun Pollock.

Shaun Pollock and Steve Waugh starred in the Commonwealth Games 1998 cricket final.

Shaun Pollock led from the front for the Proteas in the final, picking up 4/19 in his nine overs. He put the Australians on the backfoot early on, dismissing Mark Waugh, Adam Gilchrist and Ricky Ponting in his opening spell to reduce them to 28/3.

“The message was ‘see off Pollock’, but I think our top order somehow heard ‘slog Pollock’,” Damien Fleming told cricket.com.au several years later.

Australia could only muster up 183 runs on the sluggish pitch before getting all out, with their captain Steve Waugh making a gritty 90 not out.

In reply, the Proteas started strongly with a 73-run opening stand and a composed knock of 44 from Jacques Kallis took the team within touching distance of the win.

Dale Benkenstein hit the winning shot of the match to give South Africa the first-ever gold for cricket at the Commonwealth Games. It was a special moment for Shaun Pollock.

“Standing up on the podium, receiving the medal and singing our national anthem is an experience I will never forget and will always treasure,” Pollock said.

New Zealand won the bronze medal after defeating Sri Lanka and thus concluded cricket's only appearance at the Commonwealth Games.

Aussie captain Steve Waugh had a stellar tournament with the bat in Kuala Lumpur.

While Sri Lanka’s Avishka Gunawardene scored the most runs in the tournament (234 runs in five innings), it was Steve Waugh who shone with the bat. The Aussie captain managed 225 runs in just three innings, including a century against India, and was never dismissed. He was, however, left hurt with the result in the final.

“The way in which we lost… in the gold-medal game hurt me, because some of our guys had switched into party mode and believed it was a given we would win,” Steve Waugh said.

“I wasn’t upset with the silver, but I was aggrieved at our lack of professionalism.”

South Africa CWG 1998 gold-winning squad: Shaun Pollock (captain), Mark Boucher (wicket-keeper), Adam Bacher, Alan Dawson, Andrew Hudson, Dale Benkenstein, Derek Crookes, Henry Williams, Herschelle Gibbs, Jacques Kallis, Makhaya Ntini, Mike Rindel, Nicky Boje, Paul Adams, Steve Elworthy

The South African cricket players flaunt their Commonwealth Games gold medal.

1998 Commonwealth Games cricket stats

Matches played: 28

Highest team score: 309/9 Zimbabwe vs Malaysia

Lowest team score: 45 Canada vs India

Most runs: Avishka Gunawardene (SL) 234, average 46.80

Most wickets: Damien Fleming (AUS) 14 wickets, average 9.42

Highest individual score: 107 Avishka Gunawardene (SL) vs Jamaica

Best bowling: Damien Fleming 5/24 (AUS) vs Antigua and Barbuda

Centuries: 3

Five-wicket hauls: 3