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For South Africa, everything isn't enough

They did many things right, but many things wrong in the semi-final too, and will go back and reflect on a World Cup campaign that could have ended very differently

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
David Miller put his arms around Gerald Coetzee. Keshav Maharaj stood with his hands on his knees. Kagiso Rabada and Marco Jansen took their caps off and revealed expressions of disappointment. Quinton de Kock half-crumpled, half-crouched on the ground and then got up to meet Aiden Markram and Heinrich Klaasen's high-fives of commiserations, but also congratulations on the end of a decade-long ODI career. Temba Bavuma led the team off Eden Gardens, looking their Australian counterparts in the eye and shaking their hands. This was defeat, yes, but not, as Coetzee had said in the lead-up, dishonour.
South Africa fought, as Rabada had said before the semi-final, "tooth and nail". And muscle and nerve and sinew and spirit. They gave it everything. That they had to is because of what may be called their own failings - some of the decisions they made and the way they started with the bat and the ball and dropped catches. But that would do a disservice to their own planning and performance and the way Australia's new-ball bowlers and opening batters started.
Did Bavuma make the wrong call at the toss by opting to bat? In hindsight, we may say yes, but history was on his side. At this ground, 13 of the 20 teams that chose to bat first had won, including all three at this World Cup. This year, before today, South Africa had won ten out of 11 matches batting first. Bavuma based his decision on numbers and played to South Africa's strongest suit, but maybe there is room to consider if he made a crucial error.
For one, he failed to look skywards.
This match was played on one the cloudiest days of the tournament, cooler than most others but with significant moisture in the air. At 1pm, the temperature was 27 degrees with 83% humidity, so maybe the option to bowl first should have been considered more carefully. But only maybe. Given South Africa's shaky record chasing - not just at this tournament - and that Pat Cummins would also have batted, or so he said, it's reasonable to think Bavuma made the right call and that perhaps it was just a good toss to lose for Cummins.
But did Bavuma make the wrong decision to play in the first place?
Well, no, because it wasn't his decision. Although he repeatedly said he was not "100%" fit, he would have had to be passed match fit by the medical team in order to be named in the starting XI.
And there it ends. Not with a bang or a whimper but with a bloody good game of cricket where so many things went right. So many, but not enough
So, did someone else make the wrong decision to play him? Not if you ask coach Rob Walter, who said he backed his captain "100%" and "having his [Bavuma's] leadership and his presence on the field is everything". And, in the end, Bavuma's hamstring played no role in his fourth-ball duck. He got a good ball that nipped away and he played at it. It was unfortunate, but that's all.
Not to forget, all four of the top four failed.
But the batting line-up as a whole did not.
Known for what they can do in the last ten overs, Klaasen and Miller came together in the 12th over - at 24 for 4 - and took South Africa through almost 20 overs of rebuilding. They refocused after an almost-40-minute rain delay and made a decision to play within themselves and only aim for the boundary if they were absolutely sure they would find it. Klaasen lost his bearings against Travis Head, but Miller played arguably the innings of his career so far. He was on 48 when Jansen was dismissed and put on double-figure stands with batters seven, eight and nine. Five years and five days since he last scored an ODI century, Miller raised his bat to his bravest and gave South Africa a chance.
Then it was up to an attack that has had the benefit of big totals for most of this competition but, remarkably, they relied on a non-traditional strength to do it: spin. On a surface that turned, Markram took a wicket with his first ball, Maharaj did the same, and hope whispered.
And that is the point at which the first seeds of hurt were planted.
Had Australia knocked off the total in 35 overs and won by five or six wickets, South Africa would have had the mental space to deal with it. Instead, with each chance, there was a wave of optimism.
In total, four catches did not go to hand. The first was off Coetzee's first delivery - a short ball. Head swatted it to substitute fielder Reeza Hendricks at the deep-point boundary but he could not hold on. The Coetzee over went for 15 runs. By that point, he had watched as Jansen - his contemporary in terms of age - was again gnawed at by nerves, lost his lines and leaked 27 runs in three overs. Rabada was off the field with a bruised heel - which is why Hendricks was on - and the game was slipping away. Coetzee was taken out of the attack and had the time to think.
When he returned, he served up a spell of fire, spiced liberally with short balls and very nearly brought South Africa back from the brink. In the end, he did not win the game but his two wickets added to his record as South Africa's most successful bowler at a World Cup, which only adds to the bittersweet flavour of this campaign.
In a tournament where South Africa broke the record for the highest World Cup total and their batting line-up scored more hundreds than any other team, they have still not managed to break through the semi-final barrier. A sparkling sporting year for the country, in which the women's team reached the final of the T20 World Cup and the Springboks lifted a fourth rugby World Cup title, will finish one twinkle short of a sporting gold star but there should be some perspective.
From Eden Park in 2015 to Eden Gardens in 2023, it has not been a stairway to heaven for South African cricket. In some of those years, quite the opposite. They have been through administrative meltdowns, near bankruptcy, a near-miss at automatic World Cup qualification and coaching and captaincy changes that defied any chance at stability. And still, they reached the ODI World Cup semi-finals.
And there it ends. Not with a bang or a whimper but with a bloody good game of cricket where so many things went right. So many, but not enough.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's correspondent for South Africa and women's cricket