Graeme Smith is not a small man. He towers above six foot, has shoulders broader than a lock forward, a chest that can puff out even if he is not proud and logs for legs. His personality can be even bigger: the larger than life leader of South African cricket for the last eight years, who will bat with a broken hand and will bounce back, bullish as ever, after a broken heart. Add to that the meaty guffaw and booming voice, and you have a massive character. But, on Friday night, in his last game as captain of the one-day team, he looked a small, small man indeed.

His gestures, usually open and friendly, were limp. His smile, usually broad, was absent. His frown, usually menacing, had been wiped off, and his eyes, usually alive, were empty. This was a man who was gutted. At the beginning of his post-match press conference, it was almost as though he was battling to speak. Each word was laboured, each breath was long. He had, perhaps a little too literally, been stunned.

"It's hard to describe [how we feel] at such short notice. It's kind of disbelief; I felt that we certainly had what it took to win," Smith said. Few will disagree. South Africa were the team that was talked up as the most balanced unit in this tournament. They had a plethora of options, particularly in the bowling department. It was in that discipline that South Africa shone in the group stages, as the only team to take sixty wickets in six matches.

Their quarter-final was the first match of the tournament in which they did not bowl out the opposition. Still, they restricted New Zealand to 221 for 8, below the average first-innings score of 236 at the Shere Bangla Stadium. Smith showed creativity in the way he rotated the bowlers and used them in short spells; they displayed control and were assisted by a superb show of ground fielding. Smith said he thought they "certainly bowled well enough to win today."

The problem came with the bat and, inevitably, with the mind. When Smith and Jacques Kallis were laying the platform for the chase, and then again when AB de Villiers was starting to look in good touch, the win was there for the taking. When Kallis and de Villiers were dismissed, the wobble started. Two hundred and twenty two moved further and further away, and the South African middle order slipped further and further in pursuit of it.

"The batting let us down in the middle period," Smith said. "New Zealand squeezed us, the ball got soft and we needed to show a little more composure in that period." He didn't go as far as saying it was inexperience that cost them, but a middle order consisting of JP Duminy, Faf du Plessis, Johan Botha and Robin Peterson is only powerful if one of them can come off in a big way. Although all capable, they are relatively untested and even though they survived the pressure against India, Ireland and Bangladesh, against a rampant New Zealand, it was too much. "We lost four or five wickets quickly and it's difficult to recover on a wicket like this."

Small as he felt, Smith would not make others feel smaller, and even though he identified the batting as the problem in this game, he was not on a witch hunt and had no more blame to dish out. He maintained that the squad he brought to the subcontinent had given their all and even though they had fallen, they would not be weighed down by South Africa's history of exiting major tournaments in the knockouts. "We've trained hard, we worked on our skills and I cannot fault the way this team has played. When we go homes there's going to be swords and daggers. We are not the only World Cup team that has not gone on to win."

Towards the end of his press conference, Smith had regained some of the confidence that has become synonymous with him over the years. He was still a long way from being a large man, but he had started to show fluency and conviction in what he was saying. He was being frank and honest and that's something South African cricket will need to be after this episode.

It's going to be a long process of rebuilding, not the personnel, but the mindset, and Smith started it before leaving his chair. "We've just got to be honest with ourselves, that we weren't good enough tonight. Simple as that."

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent