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'It's a bit hollow' - South Africa's search for World Cup glory continues

Despite being KO'd by Australia in the semis, South Africa had their moments in this World Cup that they could treasure

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
David Miller did not feel joy, pride or a sense of accomplishment after playing the best innings of his ODI career.
"It's a bit hollow," he said afterwards, forcing a smile. "Like Quinny [Quinton de Kock] mentioned, with his four hundreds, he wouldn't mind if he didn't score any runs and we won the trophy. It's the same kind of thing. We wanted to get to the final and have a crack at the trophy, but it wasn't to be."
Those last five words carry the echoes of three decades of history and the unfairness that every new generation of South African cricketers has to make up for the one before. It's asking too much of too many. And with reflection and perspective, it should become obvious that to tangle the mistakes of the past with the expectations of the future only creates a more pressured present which can take away from the magic of the moment.
At least, despite his disappointment, Miller could bring himself back to recognise that this South African team had shown unity at the tournament. "We fought together," he said. "I'm happy that we hung in there."
And hang in, they did.
South African sport defines itself on resilience (and we can argue whether that's the correct character trait for champion teams - and we may not agree because fearlessness, for example, is also a hallmark of trophy-winners) but that is the national signature and the cricketers' handwriting is all over it. Miller's too. He might not enjoy the outcome of the match where his most significant innings came in, but he can acknowledge the context. After being 24 for 4, South Africa needed someone to bat through and he just about did.
"It was enjoyable anchoring the innings," he said. "I felt like I wanted to hit fours and sixes the whole way through. But I soaked up a lot of pressure. It was more about the partnership at that stage. Every run counts in a semi-final, so we tried to salvage some sort of total."
Playing in a way that does not come naturally to him is the clearest indication of how Miller has matured in his third ODI World Cup. Early on in the tournament, he recognised that an innings like the one he played on Thursday, might be needed despite the form of the top order. "I said to Klaasie [Heinrich Klaasen] that the guys are batting really well up front, but we need to keep training with the new ball because it's going to come at a stage where we're going to be in a bit of dwang (trouble). So [we need to] just stay sharp."
Miller's prediction to Klaasen was made after South Africa's first match, against Sri Lanka, where they posted a World-Cup record total of 428. "The next game was against the Netherlands, and we were 30 for 4," he remembered. And then 207 all out, chasing 246.
That match exposed the weakness that would stalk South Africa through this competition which they chose to avoid exposing by batting first at Eden Gardens. For the first time at this tournament, it didn't work for them and it will now become part of the folklore of failure, even though it is far from the worst of them. "There were a lot more tears in Auckland (2015)," Miller said.
That's a comment worth remembering because it means that South Africa are not piling their disappointments on top of each other but can see a separation. Not every loss was the worst loss ever and in fact there were some wins at this World Cup that they can treasure. "Before the tournament, we spoke about having great memories," Miller said. "A career in the game of cricket can go by quickly, so we need to enjoy the journey. I think we did. We ticked a lot of boxes off the field, and had some great memories and moments. We can look back and say it was a great time. It doesn't help losing the semi-final but the guys showed a lot of character and they should be proud."
As for Miller, will he make it to another World Cup? It seemed like an unfair question to ask in the immediate aftermath of defeat and, understandably, he was in no position to make a decision. "The way my body feels right now, I can't answer that. I'll see how I go," he said. "I'll take it year by year and assess as I go along. It's a long way out, so it's difficult to say right now."
The motivation to keep going for another four years may lie solely in the fact that the next tournament is at home and there is nothing like a home World Cup. The country's electricity supply is optional, and the high crime rate is a concern, but a party? That's non-negotiable. This year alone, South Africa hosted a highly successful Women's T20 World Cup and Netball World Cup to increasingly diverse fan bases.
CSA's director of cricket, Enoch Nkwe, said in Ahmedabad that he hopes most of the class of 2023 will still be playing in 2027 - even de Kock, who has retired from the format. And this is despite eight of the 15 in the Cup squad being 30 or older. So it may be nothing more than blind optimism on Nkwe's part and points to a possible transition phase coming up for the white-ball team, which will need to be carefully managed.
Aiden Markram, Gerald Coetzee and Marco Jansen are the three players in this squad who should be in their prime in 2027. Markam will be 32 then, and most likely the captain. Coetzee and Jansen will be 26 and 27, not far off the ages of Lungi Ngidi and Kagiso Rabada now, and we have seen the maturity they have both displayed. If either or both are around in 2027, they will be in their early 30s and should be able to lead the attack with even more authority. Keshav Maharaj will be 37, and judging by the Imran Tahir school-of-spin, he could still be at his best, so he should not be ruled out either and Miller will be 38.
There's a lot of cricket to be played between now and then, including two T20 World Cups, a Champions Trophy and umpteen franchise leagues. The volume of tournaments may mean that the cycle of winning and losing can become routine, and the emotions felt after each campaign could be dulled, but South Africa and World Cups, until the day South Africa win a World Cup, will always have a special allure. The story continues.

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