Hurt South Africa fall short again

Another South Africa loss in a big game, but this one won't haunt a generation like Edgbaston in 1999

Over and out: South Africa head for the exit after another impressive run in the preliminary exchanges of a major tournament  •  AFP

Over and out: South Africa head for the exit after another impressive run in the preliminary exchanges of a major tournament  •  AFP

It won't haunt a generation like Edgbaston in 1999. There won't be the same pain that accompanied going out of a home World Cup in 2003. There wasn't the embarrassment of St Lucia in 2007 when Glenn McGrath and friends had the game sewn up inside half an hour. But yet again, South Africa fell short in a game that mattered. It would be unfair if the C word was trotted out this time though, because it was Pakistani brilliance rather than South African faint-heartedness that decided this game.
What can you do when Shahid Afridi suddenly remembers how to bat, when he abruptly flails Johan Botha thrice over cover in the same over? What can you do when he produces a magic delivery to Herschelle Gibbs? What could Graeme Smith and his team have done about Umar Gul, the prince of death bowling who bowls his yorkers as unerringly as Waqar Younis once did? Younis Khan spoke afterwards of the team's inconsistency and of how it mirrored the unstable situation back home, but when it came to the crunch, Pakistani technicolour easily overshadowed South African sepia.
Smith insisted afterwards that there were aspects of the performance to be happy with. He was right. South Africa responded superbly after Afridi's onslaught on Botha, and the bowling at the death from Wayne Parnell and Dale Steyn was just outstanding. But unlike the earlier games, the fielding was far from faultless, and there was a timidity about the batting that always made you fancy Pakistan from the moment Afridi got the topspinner past Gibbs.
Gibbs and AB de Villiers apart, South Africa don't really have batsmen with the inventiveness to play their way out of a tourniquet, especially against spin. Mark Boucher might have been a worthwhile option in an Afridi-like role, but South Africa stuck instead to the orthodox and came up short. Players like Afridi and Yusuf Pathan will fail as often as they come up trumps, but they bring a sort of manic unpredictability to their teams that South Africa patently lack.
Australia had it with Andrew Symonds, and West Indies do with Chris Gayle, and it should come as no surprise that those outfits have brushed South Africa aside in global events in the recent past. There's little doubt now that South Africa possess the best all-round side in all forms of the game, but until they can win the matches that matter, they will never be respected or feared like Lloyd's West Indians or Ponting's Australians.
In the most unpredictable format of the game, you could argue that the law of averages caught up with them, after seven T20 wins in a row. But the greatest operate outside of such restrictions. Australia have won 29 World Cup matches in a row since 1999, and the West Indies didn't taste defeat in the competition until 1983. As good as Smith's team is, it isn't yet the real deal. You suspect that realisation will hurt even more than this defeat.

Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor at Cricinfo