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
44

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