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The haunted history of South Africa's World Cups

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Which was South Africa's bigger error? (2:12)

Michael Hussey and Ajit Agarkar discuss which error cost South Africa more as they let themselves down against New Zealand (2:12)

David Miller is avoiding stares. He stands half-bent at the non-strikers' end, flashing bail by his right boot. The opposition's key batsman puffing a few metres away. Kane Williamson should be heading towards the dressing room. He should have been run out by half-a-metre. Instead mid-off picks up the ball that Miller had failed to catch before he broke the stumps. When there could have been celebrations, a hush.

It is likely the throw Miller was attempting to gather took an unfortunate bounce, but five overs before that, it had been him who swooped on a ball from midwicket and produced an off-target shy at the stumps. Had he hit, Colin de Grandhomme would have been out for 14. Two overs after that, de Grandhomme would have been out again had Miller held a half-chance to his left, leaping up from short midwicket - the batsman having miscued a shot off Imran Tahir.

Much later, when Miller sprints around from deep midwicket and fails to intercept yet another aerial shot from de Grandhomme, his quarry falling short, bouncing over him, and dribbling into the boundary, it almost seems as if the ball, having a mind of its own, is taunting him. Each time, the wicket slips through Miller's fingers, like a ghost.

How much can one fielder be haunted?

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In the 1992 World Cup, South Africa were vexed by the old rain rule. In the semi-final against England, they had needed 22 off 13 when the rains came. Then 22 off one ball when play resumed - that old rule removing the runs scored off the two cheapest overs in England's innings, from South Africa's target (there had been two maidens, on this occasion). The Duckworth-Lewis method was introduced following this farce, but 11 years later, South Africa would terrorise themselves with the very rule their torment had occasioned. Needing seven to progress to the semi-final off two balls in a rain-shortened match against Sri Lanka, Mark Boucher hit a six, then blocked out the final ball, believing that one fewer run than was actually required would see his team through.

In 1999, the infamous run out of Allan Donald lost South Africa the semi-final, at Edgbaston. In 2011, the run out of AB de Villiers ruined them in Mirpur.

In 2019, something new. Williamson batting on 76, his team still 70 runs out. Tahir bowling a hard-spun legbreak, the batsman flashing, ball thudding into wicketkeeper's gloves, bowler appealing. Tahir is animated, but Quinton de Kock is not, so captain Faf du Plessis barely considers the review.

A minute later, on television, the truth is revealed. On Ultra Edge, just the hint of a spike. Only a murmur, really. The rustle of leaves on a windless night. A billowing of curtains. Williamson later tells du Plessis he didn't feel it on his bat. A batting poltergeist.

What next? If at the next World Cup, matches are played on covered grounds, will a South Africa batsman be denied a potentially match-winning six by the stadium roof, have that delivery be deemed a dead ball, then hole out immediately after?

How much can one team be haunted?

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Already in this campaign, South Africa had been hounded by history. Where in that 1999 semi-final Shane Warne had bedevilled them, bowling Herschelle Gibbs and Gary Kirsten with legbreaks that leapt out of Edgbaston footmarks on his way to that transcendental 4 for 29, in Southampton 2019, Yuzvendra Chahal claimed a four-for of his own. A legspinner, plus the spectre of legspin against them, another South Africa top order, devastated.

Now, three times in three tournaments, New Zealand have been their vanquishers. In 2011 in Mirpur, New Zealand doggedly defended a middling score, setting in motion a harrowing collapse. In 2015, Grant Elliott was dropped when JP Duminy and Farhaan Behardien collided in the outfield, when either of them could comfortably have taken that catch. Later, Elliott thumped the six to seal that game, off a poorly-conceived length ball, with the smallest boundary in cricket to defend. In 2019, after events had contrived to keep the match alive into the final over, after the key batsman could have been out twice, Williamson thumped another, effectively secure this one, off a poorly-conceived cutter, after South Africa's quicks had already delivered a predictable series of slower balls to him at the death.

Ghosts at Edgbaston. Ghosts from New Zealand. Wristspinning ghosts. Botched rain-rule scenarios, brainless run outs, dropped bats, dropped catches, contrived collapses, a missed DRS review, each footfall raising new spirits, another trauma to be thrown atop a swaying pile, all of this raising the question whether it will ever happen for them, because how much really can South Africa be haunted?