What is a story of South African cricket without a mention of the never-ending near-miss’s at World Cups? Even since they returned to competitive international cricket in the 1992 World Cup to the just completed edition of 2015, both at Australia, they have come a full circle travelling across the world and shooting arrows out of target at the title glory. But what is more interesting is that they have always seemed just a slip from being the winner but miraculously they have always slipped when it matters, earning them the dubious C word title. Mention the word in the presence of any South African cricketer, present or past, and you are immediately going into his bad books. Let us relive the story one more time.
Reliving South African Cricket’s Chocking – Past to Present
The South African side is always associated with ingenuity and innovation. They stormed the scene in 1992 and became the people’s favourite in no time with their new brand of cricket and athleticism. The bird man Jonty Rhodes single handedly manned the point region as a wall and scintillated the world with his acrobatic fielding. That run out of Inzamam Ul-Haq remains fresh in memory as yesterday’s drizzle. But the South Africans will never forget another rain that eluded them the title. Without proper judging systems in place to decide on rain-affected games, though one cannot say that the present day Duckworth-Lewis method is foolproof, they were left with a comic tragedy situation where rain made a mockery of their chase in the semi-finals. 22 runs to win off 1 ball. Who can forget the scorecard reading this target when they walked back to the crease to play out that one ball, knowing very well that it is impossible, knowing very well that it is unfair, knowing very well that it is the return ticket to South Africa and not knowing at all that it was just the start of their teasing journeys. For all one can argue, they did not choke that day.
1996 The Favourites Choke
Come 1996. The caravan stopped at the Indian subcontinent. South Africa was the team to beat. They were so consistent in all disciplines and once again they were the people’s favourites. They entered the quarter-finals with firm belief in themselves. Their opponent was West Indies, a completely unpredictable yesteryear World champion side, a side that was recently embarrassed by the minnows Kenya in the league stages. Brian Charles Lara, one man, a genius won the game single handedly for West Indies and South Africa’s collective brilliance proved short for Lara’s magic. Maybe the embarrassment suffered at the hands of Kenya infused a sense of purpose in the West Indies to redeem glory. Had they not lost to Kenya, they might as well have walked into the quarter-finals in their sleep-walk state and lost to South Africa. The Kenyans awakened them. Once again, South Africa did not choke that day. They could not do anything against a genius. If at all somebody choked in that World cup, it was the West Indies, if you remember their next game in that World Cup where Shane Warne won the game from behind for Australia.
1999 The Allan Donald Choke
- England. South Africa choked. For the first time in a World Cup. Allan Donald and Lance Klusener at the crease. Damien Fleming charging in to bowl the last over. Mark Waugh fielding at mid off. Lance Klusener, the man of the series in that World Cup, had brought a place in the finals so close to South Africa with his aggressive finishing abilities. He was owning the chase till the last over of the game. Even then, it all looked easy-peasy but Australia had an eye on that wickets column which read 9 down. One more wicket to go. Klusener on strike. If they can bring him to the non-striker end and throw all their might against Allan Donald, they may go into the finals. Klusener started brilliantly hitting a couple of early boundaries, just the right thing needed in a tight chase. He seemed set on finishing the game without giving Allan Donald the strike. But being the people’s favourite for the third time in a row put a load suddenly on the shoulders of Klusener and Donald and they lost their mind for the next ten minutes.
They were so close to throwing it away when Darren Lehmann missed a run out chance from mid wicket. For a minute, Klusener and Donald stayed still and replayed their folly in their mind. They should not get run out then, with the end line so close to cross. They took deep breaths, discussed when to run, when not to run, whom to call and whom to follow and faced the next ball. Moments later, they did it again. They threw their brains to mid off where Mark Waugh dived and threw it back to break the stumps and their World Cup dream together. That game is one of the most thrilling ties in the history of one day cricket.
Retrospectively they could even have gone to the finals had they won their earlier game against Australia in that World Cup. The rules of that world cup said that in case of tie in a knock out match, the side that won in their earlier class will proceed through. Which is why Herschelle Gibbs will lose sleep whenever he thinks of the catch that he dropped off Steve Waugh. With only themselves to blame, South Africa returned home empty handed in 1999.
2003 Duckworth Lewis Chokes The Host Out Of Own Backyard
- The World Cup was hosted in their own backyard. It looked so fair that South Africa should win in their own country after being the people’s champion in the preceding three championship tournaments. A win also mattered the most for South Africa at that point of time because it was the first world cup after their beloved captain Hansie Cronje was involved in a match fixing scandal and cast dark shadows over the integrity of the game. But just like their ingenious strategies to win games, South Africa found an ingenious way to lose the Cup this time too. Rain visited once again to rub salt in the wounds of South African memory but they still got it covered with the new Duckworth-Lewis system giving them a fair chance. Mathematics put its hand up this time and pushed South Africa out of the tournament with a simple calculation error made in the target. Mark Boucher was left to rue to the single not taken for his life. Shaun Pollock was to be banned from teaching maths to his children for his life. They found a new way to choke.
Choking Down Under
- West Indies. They moved into the semi-finals authoritatively but they ran into a mightier Australia. After making a low score, they were never on the road to defending that total. Shoulders dropped and heads lowered.
- India. Quarter-finals. New Zealand. By now, the South African fans had gotten used to accepting an unfair exit in a world tournament. Even though they feigned aggression and confidence and belief outside, in the darkest interior corners of their mind, they were praying for their team not to choke. Unfortunately they did it again. The target they chased was not Himalayan by any means but that coupled with the anxiety of the situation made it look taller than it was. Like a pack of cards, they crumbled after the slightest of disturbances. They were no longer losing for want of skill. Their minds were their weakness.
- AB de Villiers promised that it is a new team without the baggage of the past. They played in a way champions will play and reached the semi-finals where they met New Zealand again. It was really tough for a neutral cricket fan because both these teams had the backing of the whole world simultaneously. Brendon McCullum and AB de Villiers were in the same stature and fans prayed for a miracle where both teams can win. Once again, when they appeared to have got it all covered, South Africa stumbled and fumbled in defending a large enough target. Uncharacteristic fielding lapses showed that the pressure was on and it made New Zealand’s task a bit easier. They were aided by South Africa’s weakness to win.
Will South Africa win the next time? Will South Africa ever win a World Cup? For the quality of their game, they will inevitably be World champions one day. They have to believe and fight against their own devils till then. South Africa is the Leonardo diCaprio of cricket. They will find their ‘Revenant’ sooner or later but for sure.