When defeats haunt

Agony and ecstasy: Dale Steyn slipped but Grant Elliott did not AFP

I doubt that Richard III, just before he was clubbed to death in a field in Leicestershire in 1485, envisaged that crowds would one day throng city streets for a glimpse of his coffin, 500 years after his death, when he had been dug up from a car park. Who would want to lionise a monarch who had died with the rumour that he'd murdered his nephews? Moreover, who'd want to commemorate a defeat? Henry Tudor would take his crown and end his dynasty. Yet there he lay in a horse-drawn carriage, white roses scattered over his bones while the news crews filmed.

Seconds after Grant Elliott had lifted Dale Steyn's ball into the delirious crowds at Eden Park, he was lifting a prostrate AB de Villiers off the pitch and on to his feet. It was touching gesture, on par with Andrew Flintoff's arm-around-the-shoulder moment with Brett Lee at Edgbaston in 2005. This was a famous victory for New Zealand, which meant a famous loss for the South Africans. However, and unlike the last Plantagenet Richard, de Villiers had to take the post-match interview stand and, holding back the tears, admit defeat while thanking the opposition, his own players, and apologising to their fans. "Hopefully the passion we showed made a difference and people can still be proud of us." Judging by the reaction of press, players and pundits, this was indeed a heroic loss. Kevin Pieteresen admired how de Villiers had "led the team wonderfully well" and Shane Warne asked the South Africans to "hold their heads high".

South Africa were beaten, yes. But humiliated, no. The same couldn't be said for England in the tournament. Defeat is only ennobling when the contest is close and valiantly fought.

The second semi-final between Australia and India, a one-sided win for the Australians, didn't grace the losing captain with the same glory bestowed on de Villiers. Despite India's stuttering chase, diehard fans believed MS "The Finisher" Dhoni could catapult them into another World Cup final. Alas, when the asking rate steepled to more than two a ball, and Glenn Maxwell threw down a single stump to run Dhoni out in the 45th over, the game was gone. No firework sixes for the India captain this time, and perhaps his canter across no-man's land, rather than a sprawling dirt-covered dive into the popping crease that a younger player might have vainly attempted, kept what was possibly his last World Cup innings dignified. Although keeping one's cool, rather than bravely fighting on, might have left him more composed for the post-match interview, few Indian fans heard what he had to say. Most had already left the SCG, shuffling out of the stadium and on to flights back to India, perhaps hoping to forget the tame end to their campaign.

"I wonder what maybes will keep Dale Steyn - the former supreme death bowler - awake at night over the coming years. If he had fired his tracer-bullet yorkers accurately, South Africa would be in Melbourne on Sunday"

Yet forgetting defeat is never easy. "We're hurting," de Villiers said. "And it will take us a long time to get over this."

I wonder if it's only defeat by the narrowest margins that remains especially memorable. Dull games where the victor mechanically rolls over the opposition tend to fade - unless it's Netherlands playing England in the World T20. I bet Shane Warne will eternally remember spilling Kevin Pietersen when he "dropped the Ashes" in 2005. And recall that disastrous reverse sweep from Mike Gatting in the 1987 final? I'm sure Gatting does.

Or there's the scarring loss where justice has been miscarried.

Not far from the hallowed field where Richard III was hacked off his white horse and into the mud, lies Market Bosworth Rugby Club. In the dying seconds of the 1991 semi-final of the County Cup, between my team, Syston Colts, and our chief rivals, Market Bosworth, our winger dived over the line and scored in the corner. The puffing referee, wheezing half a pitch-length behind the action, only arrived when the tackler had turned the try scorer onto his back. The whistle went and we lost a game we knew we had won. The fact I'm writing about this event nearly 25 years on tells me that this defeat didn't make me a better a person.

The what-could-have-beens continue to haunt, and I wonder what maybes will keep Dale Steyn - the former supreme death bowler - awake at night over the coming years. If he had fired his tracer-bullet yorkers accurately, South Africa would be in Melbourne on Sunday. And then there was that catch in the penultimate over, when JP Duminy charged in on substitute fielder Farhaan Behardien like a wing forward on a full back, knocking Elliott's skied hook from his hands and forever onto the ground.

For Dhoni and Co I doubt such nightmares will trouble for long. Australia were simply the better side. There were no obvious maybes, and no umpiring howlers. Now New Zealand will have to fly across the Tasman and forget which team are supposed to be the favourites. They have never won the World Cup before, and surely it's better to be the famous victors rather than the infamous losers. Ask Richard III.