'We let ourselves down' - Smith
It was a batting performance that will haunt South Africa. Only Mark Boucher in the top six can say he was out to a wicket-taking ball; the others charged, slashed and wafted like men seemingly unable to adjust their minds to the reality of the situation. Mickey Arthur, the South Africa coach, however defended his batsmen by saying it was a plan that had misfired.
"I don't think we played reckless shots and threw our wickets away," Arthur said. "We had a plan. We needed to disrupt Australia's momentum somehow. We needed to get on top and we needed to get on top quick."
To be fair, the South Africans have batted pretty much the same way throughout the tournament, but shouldn't they have reassessed the situation after a couple of wickets went down quickly? "We have been quite aggressive throughout," Graeme Smith said. "We felt we could be quite aggressive upfront today. But once we went three down, it became really difficult to wrest the initiative back." He also pointed out that Australia having Shaun Tait as first change didn't help.
When asked if they choked Smith smiled ironically. "I expected that question from you boys," he said. "We certainly didn't choke. We were just not good enough. We were outplayed, and you have got to give them credit. To me a choke is when you get close to winning and you kotz up [throw up] on yourself. Maybe there were one or two loose shots at the beginning. The top order got out to good bowling."
Their batting disarray wasn't the only thing that went wrong. Smith admitted it had been their plan to bowl first here. "It was a decision based on information we had received about local conditions and on talking to teams that had played here," he said. But they were persuaded by the dryness of the wicket which hinted turn and sluggishness as the match wore on. "There was a bit of swing early on," Smith said. And Nathan Bracken used it pretty well.
But just how hazardous it would have been to bat second was never really found out because South Africa didn't have the bowler to use the conditions. Even Ricky Ponting pointed out how simple it was to deal with the sameness of the attack once a batsman got his eye in. Smith singled it out as a big area of concern.
"One of our challenges going forward is to find a spinner," he said. Robin Peterson, the left-arm slow bowler, was picked in the 12 but was not considered good enough to make the XI. "That is one facet to our game we always talk about and always get questioned about," Smith said. "If we can find a spinner like the ones Sri Lanka and Australia have, it will change our cricket in a lot of ways."
Was the defeat one of the biggest disappointments of his career? "I guess you don't mind losing," Smith said. "But when you know you haven't played to your potential, you haven't given yourself a real chance, it is quite disappointing.
"As a team we know what we are capable of. I think we have been a little bit up and down in the World Cup. We have had some outstanding performances, we have had some medium performances. Being two games away from winning a World Cup and not putting in the performance that you are looking forward to, it is disappointing. I wouldn't say we were just beaten today. We also let ourselves down."
Smith also chose to look at the brighter side. "We have certainly worked our way up," he said. "Two years ago we were fourth or fifth in one-day cricket. In the 2003 World Cup we went nowhere. We have just made it to a World Cup semi-final, and we have been the only other team [apart from Australia] to have made it to the No. 1 spot. It certainly shows we are moving forward."
Looking ahead, Smith didn't foresee too many changes. "I think there are quite a few guys who are going to be around for a few years. In the next couple of years, South African cricket is going to get very strong." But he hinted that Shaun Pollock, who will be 34 in July, will be one of the players with a decision to make.
"Shaun is probably the one who is in the balance," Smith said. "He is deciding where he wants to go with his future and his career. I don't think Shaun will be around in the next World Cup, and I don't think he will mind me saying that either."
Questions were also raised about Makhaya Ntini, whose indifferent form in the West Indies led to him being dropped from the last two matches. Arthur conceded Ntini had a few things to sort out when bowling in different conditions.
Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo and Cricinfo Magazine