How will it feel for a side to make it to the last four stage of International Cricket Council (ICC) World Cup on five occasions, without being part of the final even once? The angst and sorrow written on the face of Quinton de Kock as he trudged back to the pavilion from the ground, after his side lost the semifinal to Australia at the Eden Gardens in Kolkata summarised the feelings of his nation. As the team that finished at second place at the completion of league matches, where they had defeated the Aussies in a convincing manner, the Proteas might have fancied their chances when the two sides met again. But fortune did not favour the Temba Bavuma-led team as Australia got the better of them in a closely fought encounter.
What happens to South Africa in knockout matches of the World Cup? A look at their record in this championship will tell us that they have been destiny’s step child in almost all editions after they entered the fray in 1992. They were a last-minute entrant as their return to international cricket took place only a few months before World Cup 1992 took off. But the side did not show any sign of rustiness or inexperience as they marched into semifinals, defeating along the way Australia, the West Indies, Pakistan, England and India. Their semifinal against England was evenly poised with the side needing 22 runs from 13 balls when rain interrupted the proceedings. The quixotic rule that was in application during this tournament judged that South Africa were eligible for facing only one more ball though interruption was for 12 minutes and light was good enough for play to continue longer. Entire cricket world agreed that South Africa got a raw deal on account of this rule and many tears were shed at their mode of exit in this manner.
In 1996, South Africa was touted as one of the stronger teams in the fray and they won over their rivals in the league phase in a convincing manner. But they had the misfortune of running into an in-form Brian Lara when the side met the West Indies in the quarter finals. Despite this, a target of 265 was not an insurmountable one for them and they appeared to be cruising when Roger Harper triggered a middle order collapse with his off-spin. South Africa tumbled from 186/3 to 228/9 as wickets fell in a heap and West Indies ended up winners by a margin of 19 runs.
The tragedy that South Africa faced at Birmingham in the semifinals against Australia in the 1999 World Cup has been told and retold on numerous occasions. Going into the championship, South Africa were the favourites, with a side that was outstanding in all departments of the game, besides being led by Hansie Cronje, an astute skipper. They played like champions throughout the league and Super 6 stage, the occasional blips notwithstanding. But they lost their nerve at the most crucial stage of their match at against Australia in the semifinal. This game,, which has gone down in history as one of the greatest One-Day Internationals ever, produced edge-of-the-seat thrill and excitement. After restricting Australia to a modest total of 213, South Africa appeared in the driver's seat when their openers put on 48 runs. Australia came back strongly to claim four wickets quickly before Jacques Kallis and Jonny Rhodes steadied the innings. Fortunes swung crazily after this partnership was broken with neither side able to get an upper hand. South Africa needed nine runs, with one wicket in hand, when the last over began. When Lance Klusener, then in terrific form, walloped the first two balls of this over to the fence to bring the scores level, it appeared that the game was over and captain Steve Waugh brought in the fielders from the fence. Alan Donald, standing at the non-striker/s end, was nearly run out off the next ball when he took off for a run and was turned back by Klusener. But Klusener himself committed hara-kiri immediately thereafter when he took off after playing the ball to mid off, while Donald, for a change, stood rooted at the crease. The Aussie fielders made no mistake and threw the ball to the wicketkeeper's end, even as Klusener and Donald were left staring at each other at the bowler’s end.
South Africa failed to qualify for the Super Six stage of the 2003 World Cup that they hosted on account of an elementary mistake involving calculation of the target for winning a rain affected match using Duckworth-Lewis formula. They fared better in 2007, where they reached the last four stage, before being bulldozed by the powerful Aussie juggernaut by a margin of seven wickets. In 2011, they topped the league phase, defeating even India, the eventual champions, but went down tamely to New Zealand in the quarterfinals. This came as a big surprise since the side, then led by Graeme Smith, was a strong one and was considered by many as having the potential to last the distance.
In 2015, South Africa appeared all set to wipe away their previous records as a side that could do well in league matches but tended to falter in the more important knock out stage. Like in 1999, they had an excellent side, led by A B de Villiers, who was also the best contemporary batsman in limited overs cricket. Their bowling attack led by Dale Steyn and boasting of such brilliant performers as Morne Morkel, Vernon Philander and Imran Tahir was the envy of opposing sides. After finishing second behind India in the league stage, they thrashed Sri Lanka by nine wickets in the quarterfinals, which was, incidentally, their first win in the knockout stage in this championship. Buoyed by this success, they took on New Zealand in the semifinals.
It appeared that that the side was on the verge of breaking their jinx when they batted first and posted a total of 281/5 in 43 overs, in a game shortened by rain. Though rain had interrupted their innings when de Villiers and Faf du Plessis were in full flow, it did not appear that they were affected too badly when the target of New Zealand was fixed at 299 by the DLS method. But dame luck stopped smiling on them at this juncture as the Kiwis batted like men possessed and took the famed South African attack to the cleaners. Steyn, their main bowler, who was considered a model of accuracy and parsimony, had a particularly bad day and ended up conceding 12 runs in the last over of the match. It emerged later that Steyn had pulled a muscle during the over, which left him in intense pain, but he decided to continue given the desperate situation his side was in. This defeat was so heartbreaking that players slumped down on the turf in grief and could not even find energy to get back to the pavilion.
The loss at Auckland was a rude shock to the South African side and they took their time to recover from it. They could win only three out of the nine games they played in the 2019 edition of the championship and finished in the bottom half in the points table. The team went through a process of rebuilding following the retirement of Faf du Plessis, Hashim Amla and Duminy and it was a new look side under Bevuma that reported in India for this edition of the World Cup. They had a good run though the league phase of the tournament, winning svene matches and losing only two - the two losses coming against an in-form Indian side and a shock one against the Netherlands. The defeat against the Netherlands had again drawn questions as to whether this time also the team would perish early after promising much. But such fears were misplaced as the side showed resilience and determination to bounce back after this match and moved back into top gear swiftly.
The defeat at the hands of Australia in semifinals would have disappointed South African players and the followers of the game in their country. But there is no reason for them to feel disheartened or dejected as the side played top quality cricket and made the the Aussies struggle till the winning runs were hit. A top order collapse pinned them to the ropes and though they managed to reach a decent total of 212, thanks to a fighting century by David Miller, it was short of a winning score. But the South African bowlers, especially their spin duo of Keshav Maharaj and Tabraiz Shamsi, ran circles around the Asutralians, with able assistance from Aiden Markram. Australia had to huff and puff to reach the target and there were some very tense moments before they could afford to smile. Thus, even though individual players might have felt sad, as a team South Africa came out of this defeat with their heads held high.
The defeat at the hands of Australia in the tied game at Birmingham in 1999 was the turning point in South Africa’s cricket history as they lost a match that they had in their bag and that too on account of an attack of nerves. This was the reason for the side to be tagged as a set of “chokers”, who tend to panic in a critical situation in an important game and end up losing it. This tag was reinforced following their loss to New Zealand in 2015, when a couple of bad overs saw them crumble as a side.
However, the defeat at Eden Gardens may prove to the beginning of the journey to throw off that unfortunate label for good as they played this match like champions and gave their opponents a run for their money. This game may mark the beginning of a new era in South African cricket that will see them win more matches and ICC championships in the years ahead.
Well played, Bavuma and his bunch of spirited cricketers! You won the hearts of followers of the game the world over by your fighting spirit, grit and outstanding exhibition of cricket.
(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)