Losing their heads: South Africa bottled it on the big occasion again © Getty Images

One word - guaranteed not to have been uttered by anyone in the South Africa team - haunted their entire innings. No prizes for guessing that word was "choke". Going in to this match today, South Africa were the only unbeaten team in the tournament, and it counted for nothing. It almost seemed make the result all the more inevitable.

"Choke" was almost the first word of the end-of-match press conference, and it elicited an embittered response from Graeme Smith, who sniped at the South African journalist: "I guess I expected that question from you," before conceding, "I guess we do find ways to get out of these tournaments... It's very disappointing knowing you've lost only one game in the tournament and you're out... That does seem a little bit weird."

It shouldn't feel too weird to three members of the team. Herschelle Gibbs, Mark Boucher and Shaun Pollock were there at Edgbaston in 1999, and at Headingley one match earlier, when Steve Waugh dryly told Gibbs that he'd just dropped the World Cup.

Gibbs's urge to celebrate catching Waugh was premature - he never had the ball under control - setting off the chain of events that culminated in that infamous run-out muddle involving Lance Klusener and Allan Donald. The match was tied, and South Africa, from a position of strength, had succumbed to a side that had needed to win every one of their remaining games to stay in the tournament.

The same trio were there - as well as Smith, de Villiers and Kemp - when Australia humiliated South Africa at the 2007 World Cup semi in St Lucia. That game was never South Africa's: they had been psyched out before play began, and there was no way back from 27 for 5.

Unhappily for South Africa, the litany goes on. At Durban in the 2003 World Cup, they made an unholy mess of the Duckworth/Lewis tables. Probably best not to mention that game to Boucher, who declined to take the single off Murali that would have put South Africa through to the Super Sixes. That was a ghost the team were desperate to put to rest.

The same happened yet again in the Champions Trophy in Sri Lanka in 2002. India were the assassins then as now. Smith, Gibbs, Boucher, Pollock and Ntini will have miserable memories of a September night in Colombo.

"When you lose like that it's always difficult to make excuses," mulled Smith at Kingsmead tonight. "As a team we've got to take these losses and try to come back better people. Yah, it was disappointing."

Smith kept coming back to the word "disappointing". There might have been another, uglier word at the back of his mind. He couldn't say it: it would have caught in his throat.

Hugh Chevallier is deputy editor of Wisden Cricketers' Almanack