South Africa v England, Group B, Centurion September 27, 2009

War hero Smith shadows the pain of defeat

Graeme Smith's hobble back to the dressing room must rank as the most moving moment of this tournament so far

Heroes in defeat often provide the most poignant memories in sport. Graeme Smith's hobble back to the dressing room after being dismissed tonight must rank as the most moving moment of this tournament so far, and is likely to remain so. It helped the local crowd overcome their great sadness to rise to applaud the valiance of the man who had battled the odds all evening. He had given his best, but it had not been enough.

At first, Smith walked with his head bowed, with a grimace, and perhaps feeling sick to his bones. But then the mood touched him, and it lifted him. He raised his bat and stopped to acknowledge the fans in all corners of the ground. Dale Steyn, the last man in, paused briefly for a handshake and a pat, and off Smith went, with the painful realisation that the applause would bring no comfort despite his monumental achievement.

Smith can, for the rest of his life, be proud of his feat tonight, yet it will be a night of bitter disappointment. As a man he conquered, but as a team South Africa lost. That will be hard to swallow. Sometimes you wonder what is worse in a failed chase: falling miserably short, or staying close and then flunking the final part. Heartbreak is an essential part of being a fan, but how do sportsmen reconcile themselves to what could have been?

How hard it must be for Smith, a proud and passionate man, to front up before us, men and women who have only a peripheral comprehension of what sportsmen go through, to explain why his team had come up short on the big stage once again. Sportspeople live a public life and, and as a professional, I am grateful for the access, but on a personal level, I sometimes wonder if at moments like this they shouldn't be allowed to hurt in private, alone, or among people with whom they connect.

Smith knows what to expect from these press conferences now. I was in that room in St Lucia in 2007 after South Africa had handed over the semi-final to Australia through a series of mindless strokes in the first ten overs. Today he repeated the same words to the press. "Disappointment" and how "the team had let itself down", "as a team we know what we are capable of." And "no, we didn't choke."

How hard it must be for Smith, a proud and passionate man, to front up before us, men and women who only have a peripheral comprehension of what sportsmen go through, to explain why his team had come up short on the big stage once again?

It took a little longer to come up tonight, but inevitably it did. By then, though, Smith, who perhaps knew it was coming, had already provided the answers. The coach Mickey Arthur had offered a couple of explanations - the bowlers were rusty and, unlike batsmen, they take a bit longer to hit their stride; and it didn't help that South Africa had to play Sri Lanka in Centurion, where the pitch was more subcontinental - but Smith made no excuses. "We were poor over three matches, that's plain and simple."

South Africa didn't choke today. Their bowling was merely appalling once again and England batted like they have never done in recent memory. But Smith knows what headlines to expect tomorrow, and perhaps he doesn't bother about that anymore, because he knows that nothing he says will make a difference.

South Africa's exit is a blow for the tournament. The SuperSport Park in Centurion is among the most spectator-friendly grounds in the world - perhaps too friendly, on the evidence of the ground invasion by the flag-waving Pakistani fans last night - and for two days in succession, the grass banks have been a sight.

Last night, it was the lot of the Indian fans, who constituted about three-fourths of the crowd, to go home deflated. Tonight, the South Africans left feeling utterly despondent. It is unlikely that they will turn up in such numbers for the neutral games.

Once again, a dream was shattered. The grieving will continue for a few days at least. Many will vow never to dream again. But of course they will, and once the pain recedes, they will be grateful for being there. What we watched in Centurion today was special.

Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • SRINI on September 29, 2009, 11:30 GMT

    The controversy over Strauss refusal to allow a runner to Smith should actually be directed to the ICC for coming with clear and consistent rules.

    CRICINFO can do a great service if it can devote a section to 'case laws' of rules interpretation in cases like this. For instance I wd be able to make up my mind on this issue with a fair bit of factual help - did ever Strauss allow a runner to a cramped batsman? If such a resource already exists I wd like to be directed to it.

  • Aamir on September 29, 2009, 9:43 GMT

    I'm a Pakistani so this was a neutral game for me, but because i like to take a side of one team while watching any cricket match, i choose England as my side at the start and wanted England to win the match, Owais Shah, Eoin Morgan and Paul Collingwood helped me in that cause... but when i saw Greame Smith bat the way he did, i naturally and unintentionally started supporting South Africa.. i really then wanted Greame Smith to get success for his efforts.. if Greame Smith would have had a side like Australia.. then they might well have been the invincible side..! Win and Loss is part of the game, Smith really gave life to the game..! he has done a great work for his country and cricket in general, as lot of junior cricketers around the world could get inspired of such a magnificent knock..!

  • Rahul on September 29, 2009, 6:48 GMT

    Brilliant, brilliant innings from Smith. One of the best I've seen in a while. A true shame that it was in a losing cause, though. RSA did not deserve to get knocked out - completely unexpected.

  • Shulz Van on September 29, 2009, 3:34 GMT

    Thank you Mr Hobbs..... The words i was looking for....U sed it.... No one realise why SA are called chokers..... (ofcourse, people love to follow Steve Waugh rubbish words) Other teams like England, New Zealand, etc are not called chokers.... Because if England wins its a shock....(who expects them to win a tounament???) But when SA loses they are chokers cos they are such a good team people take them for granted....but its Cricket where anything can happpen..... I would say England is the biggest chokers of the came..... They started the game but have won nothing yet..... They choked against WI in CT final, choked against pakistan in WC final...and i can keep goin on.....And SA just Started the game in

  • Sanjay on September 29, 2009, 2:26 GMT

    Smith played really well and has shown that the captaincy does not affect his batting. I would like to make the point after reading articles where Mickey Arthur, AB De Velliers and Dumminy have all made comment about SAF being the number 1 team. It is time that they get rid of the obsessive focus on being No 1. Tehy are not the number 1 team. There is no number 1 team in the world at the moment. It is pretty even Stevens. SAF have been dumped out in this tournament, didn't do well at the 20-20 and lost the test series at home against Australia. Just might be time to let go of being No 1 and just play cricket. If that happens, results will automatically come.

  • maneesh on September 28, 2009, 21:14 GMT

    All the matches at centurion was decided based on who won the toss! win the toss win the match. i guess teams should now only practise how to win a toss rather than batting or bowling or fielding!

  • Raghu on September 28, 2009, 18:30 GMT

    I am sorry to se India has to wait for the other results to qualify. I also feel for SA missing out for semis and I am sure they will bounce back.

  • Dhiraj on September 28, 2009, 17:38 GMT

    @I.H. Naqvi...........what is defaming about flag-waving Pakistani fans???? plz read the full sentence...sambit was stressing the point that it was a spectator friendly ground.....

  • m on September 28, 2009, 17:34 GMT

    helo every body there i think they got wrong at the midle when deviliers lost his wicket if they left 170 runs for last 20 overs with wickets in hands i stil thought that they could win there would be t20 match for last 20 overs take the powerplay from 31 to 35 and try to get as many as u can and then play like t 20 match and secondly i think that the botha should be go out and morne morkel should be inn coase you can,t servive without enough seemers and morne is good at the end and i also want to send selectors message re think about kalis cause the worldcup is a head of just 1 years and they should find some new one with great strike rate and very young one

  • Husni on September 28, 2009, 17:19 GMT

    What i feel is South African's are mentally not fit to play the big games like semi's, final's or the must win games. Because they have the scare and fear that they will loose as like India. So now what the South African cricket board should do is change the Captain and look for the "NEW" luck which there waiting for many year's. I propose Johan Botha as the new captain and has a excellent knowledge of leading the side, where he proved it in Australia. Cronje, Pollock, and smith's were not lucky enough, hope at-least the new captain's luck works for the talented South Africans.

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