Big-event hoodoo returns to haunt South Africa
Perhaps, South Africa shouldn't host another tournament in the near future. This 22-run defeat against England completed an unwelcome hat-trick. The 2003 World Cup, the World Twenty20 in 2007 and now the Champions Trophy. Three global events on home turf, and not even a semi-final place to show for it. And yet, with the little support for the magnificent Graeme Smith, it could all have been so very different.
Smith's 141 was similar in so many ways to Sachin Tendulkar's Desert Storm innings at Sharjah in 1998. Back then, India had two targets to chase, 276 to win the game (46 overs) and 237 to make sure that they qualified for the final. For South Africa on Sunday night, the lower bar was set at 313. That would have helped them overhaul Sri Lanka's net run-rate and given them at least a mathematical chance of progress.
Eleven years ago, Tendulkar made 143 from 131 balls. Smith made 141 from 134. The next-highest contribution for India was Nayan Mongia's 35. For South Africa, no one went beyond AB de Villiers' 36. As far as one-man shows went, this was in the same league.
Just before the start of the 39th over of the South African innings, the DJ started playing Gimme Hope, Jo'anna, Eddy Grant's anti-Apartheid anthem from the 1980s. Only, on Sunday night, it was Smith who was giving more than 16,000 people something to cling to, the possibility, however slender, that South Africa could break their big-event hoodoo.
When he was asked later how empty he felt, Smith said: "It's kind of difficult to sum that up right now. I was batting and also on the field all day. Obviously, words like disappointment come to mind. It'll need a day or two to consider what happened. It's disappointing when you've played a knock like that not to get over the line."
As well as he batted, and as poorly as those around him played the pressure situations, the real blame for this latest debacle lay with the bowlers, whose lack of discipline and variations on a placid pitch allowed England to pile on the runs. "I think the wicket played really well today, and you needed to be really consistent," said Smith. "There wasn't a lot of spin on offer, so our seamers needed to come to the party. We conceded over 300 in two of the three games, which is hugely disappointing. If wickets play that well, we need to look at certain aspects of our attack and going forward to the England series, there are some decisions for us to make.
"You also have to give credit to the way [Paul] Collingwood and [Owais] Shah played. They took the game to us. They were positive, and never really allowed new bowlers to settle. As bad as we feel about our performance, you've also got to give credit to the way those two guys played, and the platform they laid for someone like Eoin Morgan who came in and played a great knock."
South Africa are respected by opponents for the meticulousness of their preparation, but once again it was their lack of an X-factor, or predictability if you want to call it that, which came back to haunt them. When asked about the possibility of using a pinch-hitter to get ahead of the asking-rate, both Smith and Mickey Arthur, the coach, sang from the same hymn-sheet.
"We spoke about it, but with our batting line-up, we have the players who can do it," Smith said. "We hit our marks right up until the 40th over. We just lost key wickets at that time. We wanted to take the Powerplay and really have a full go at it. We wanted to leave ourselves 85 or 90 in the last 10, with a Powerplay. We were close to that...just some bad shots at key times, a run out here and there. We set up where we wanted to be, but just didn't finish it off.
"You've got to weigh up if Roelof [van der Merwe] is going to do a better job than a Jacques Kallis or an AB de Villiers. Those are world-class batsmen. You've got to back the players you've picked to do a job."
There was also no hiding South African dismay over the scheduling of all three of their group games at Centurion, a result of the IPL-related spat between the Gauteng Cricket Board and Cricket South Africa. By deciding to put the provincial authorities in their place, the national body only ended up spitting on its own doorstep. "Generally, one of our strengths has been our attack," Arthur said. "When I saw a couple of those Wanderers strips at the start of the tournament, I'd certainly have preferred to play Sri Lanka there than at Centurion where the wicket was tailor-made for the subcontinent.
"We've seen what's happened to Sri Lanka at the Wanderers, with balls that have bounced above stump height. If I could have picked, I'd most definitely have played Sri Lanka at the Wanderers. But that was not to be."
Not to be. Those three words are fast becoming South Africa's motto at major championships, and Smith accepted that the well of mitigating circumstances had run dry. "There really are no excuses to be made anymore," he said. "It's the responsibility of the group of players that sit in that room now to go and perform better in these tournaments. We've been hugely consistent with the results that we've turned out, so this is a very disappointing moment for us."
No one would have been more distraught than the man who walked out to bat in Sydney with a broken hand, the individual whose strength of will scripted a famous Test, and series victory at Edgbaston last summer. Those who failed around him could well be targets for the C word, but anyone that uses it in relation to Smith is ignorant of both cricket and the English language. If they ever remade Braveheart, he'd be on the shortlist to play the lead.
All of that is scant consolation though, after another party where the hosts end up being sent to bed early. Before the World Twenty20 this June, South Africa switched their apparel sponsors. Out went Hummel and in came Reebok. If this culture of failure on the biggest stage is allowed to grow even deeper roots though, they may just have to change the colour of the kit, from green to All Black. And that really would be the unkindest cut of all.
Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor at Cricinfo