Defeated Smith plays down 'chokers' tag
Surely it wouldn't happen again? This South African team was primed, ready and in-form. They had all the bases covered and had come through unbeaten to the semi-final. They had countered pressure on numerous occasions in the past two years and had even employed a psychologist who had helped them counter the mind games. Once again, though, it all came to nothing.
The look on Graeme Smith's face as he sat in the dug-out during the closing stages of South Africa's failed run chase was worth a thousand words. History was repeating itself as the favourites were dumped out of another tournament before the final that seemed destined to be theirs. It took until about the half-way mark of the press conference for someone to use the inevitable 'c' word, but Smith was ready for it; after all he's had practice.
"Every time we lose an important game like this the word is going to be thrown around, it's around the team, and it was natural if we didn't win today people were going to raise that comment," he said. "This tournament is almost a knock-out from the word go. Maybe other teams choked in the Super Eights phase.
"It is Twenty20 cricket, you are playing against international opposition with quality players and sometimes you get beaten. Today we were beaten. That's the unfortunate thing, with the level we've played at throughout we probably deserve to be in the final but that's not the way it works and that's what makes the game so great. We were beaten by a great performance from Shahid Afridi and a Pakistan team that played better than us. That's something we've got to deal with."
Smith, though, was adamant that his players hadn't frozen and the quality of Pakistan's bowling gave strong supporting evidence. "We were just beaten on the day by a better team. We gave 100%, we were nice and relaxed and we were beaten and that's the sad reality for us and we'll come back next time and give our best again."
Leading into this match South Africa had brought impressive consistency to the most unpredictable format of the game, but this match showed that they haven't found all the answers. The margins in Twenty20 are so fine that even the slightest mistake, or momentary lapse, can prove the difference and there were the occasional moments when South Africa weren't as sharp as in previous encounters.
There were more misfields than in the other five matches put together - starting with the captain diving over the ball at mid-off - and Johan Botha gave Shahid Afridi three half volleys in a row outside off stump that he hammered through the covers. However, it wasn't those moments that lost South Africa the match, but the lack of momentum in the middle overs of the run chase. For that, huge credit must go to the Pakistan attack.
Smith and Jacques Kallis had added 40 in 5.5 overs, however, when they were separated the innings seized up. The key again, as so often in Twenty20, was spin. South Africa had struggled in their previous game against India against the slow bowlers, but got away with it when their own attack exploited a crumbling pitch. Smith was critical of the surface for that game, perhaps fearful that in a match which really mattered it could be a deciding factor.
"Playing spin, especially here at Trent Bridge, has been difficult for a period of time and chasing here has been difficult," Smith said. "The wicket has got drier since the warm-up games and has taken more spin. It's a natural progression due to the amount cricket played on it and both teams knew what it would be like."
Not for the first time attention will be given to Kallis' innings, which ended in the 18th over for 64 from 54 balls. He didn't play the inaugural World Twenty20, but has returned as an opener who can anchor the innings. He was solid during the IPL and it worked perfectly for South Africa during a small chase against England. Here the problem was no-one played around him.
When Kallis was caught at long-on the other batsmen had produced 37 runs off 49 deliveries. Kallis was doing his job but was let down by those selected for the big shots and it's one of the disappointments of the tournament that Albie Morkel never teed off. On the eve of the match Mickey Arthur, the coach, was asked about any concerns over the middle order's lack of batting, but said he was confident in their form and at some stage they would have to win a game. That moment has now been and gone.
"It's difficult to blame Jacques, he played a good innings from our point of view. I don't think we batted that well around him," Smith said. "The guys coming in never really kicked on around him. You can always look at little things, but he played a good knock."
So much has gone right for South Africa in recent times that it felt that if they were ever going to slay the semi-final demon it would be here. The response now they haven't managed it will show how deep the team can dig. "It is really disappointing and it's a hard step to get over," Smith said, "but we've just got to keep playing with an open mind and hopefully that final will come along."
He won't have to wait too long for another chance. Although this defeat marks the end of a long road of almost non-stop action, when the players return to duty in September their first assignment will be the Champions Trophy on home soil. That will bring both pressure and expectation as the challenge starts again. For now, the wait goes on and the tag remains.
Andrew McGlashan is assistant editor of Cricinfo