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Feature

South Africa get into a cage and slam the door shut on themselves

Paralysed by their history at World Cups, South Africa put in a performance so timid it was scarcely believable

Danyal Rasool
Danyal Rasool
06-Nov-2022
The despondency is only exacerbated by the knowledge that theirs is a very powerful side  •  AFP/Getty Images

The despondency is only exacerbated by the knowledge that theirs is a very powerful side  •  AFP/Getty Images

"And I wonder/Should I laugh or cry…"
It's not the most famous ABBA song by any stretch, but as South Africa stumbled to another premature World Cup exit, they were at the stage where that question must have felt real.
Temba Bavuma looked close to tears as he spoke to media after the match. While there was a lot of tiptoeing around the "c" word when Mark Boucher spoke at the press conference, Bavuma was far more direct at what Netherlands' 13-run victory - and South Africa's elimination - meant for his side. "It [the chokers' tag] will always be there until we find ourselves in a situation when we get to a final and we come up on the right side of a result," he said.
The despondency is only exacerbated by the knowledge that theirs is a very powerful side, especially in the conditions on offer. Bavuma's own form with the bat was certainly an Achilles' heel, but one more than covered by the explosiveness of Quinton de Kock, the consistency of David Miller's fire and fury, the century-hitting wrecking ball that is Rilee Rossouw, and the dependable Aiden Markram. Keshav Maharaj as a nail through the middle overs? Of course. Kagiso Rabada - even an off-colour one - and Anrich Nortje and Lungi Ngidi in Australian conditions? Yes, please.
They scored 51 in three overs against Zimbabwe in Hobart. They mauled Bangladesh by 104 runs in Sydney. They held their nerve to beat India in a low-scoring thriller in Perth and go top of the group. That it came down to a sleepy Sunday morning in Adelaide was because Pakistan found the sublime best they sometimes do when on life support, with a World Cup on the line.
But on a triple-header day - the last of the Super 12s - at the World Cup, South Africa's equation was the simplest: beat Netherlands, play the semi-final. Yes, it was a knockout game, but going by the team rankings, this should have been straightforward.
But, paralysed by a history South African cricket increasingly looks like it has no idea how to break free of, a side that bore little resemblance to the title contenders who had strutted about Australia this last fortnight turned in a performance scarcely credible in its timidity. Kagiso Rabada found himself carved through the offside first-ball by Stephan Myburgh, and spent the entire over, guessing and second-guessing a man who simply backed himself against one of the fastest bowlers in the world. Myburgh knew this was his last international match, and he felt the freedom to score. South Africa, fearing it was their last match this tournament, flew themselves into a cage that slammed shut on them.
When Netherlands posted 158, and it became clear the easy win South Africa so craved wouldn't be handed to them, the magnitude of the moment seemed to weigh South Africa down.
De Kock averages just 11.4 in T20I cricket against left-arm pace this year, and he ended up pushing that average down further when he managed just six off eight balls - out of 13 off 13 - and lost his wicket to Fred Klaassen.
As the game pushed its way into the middle overs, and it became apparent that it might become a battle of nerves at the death, Netherlands grew into the contest, occupying the space a retreating South Africa were handing them. Forty-eight runs off five overs isn't the most intimidating equation, but Netherlands had Brandon Glover to turn to for three overs - no one has a better T20I bowling average for them - and with South Africa needing to preserve wickets, that bred uncertainty.
Uncertainty that translated into Miller snatching at a pull, and Roelof van der Merwe - who else, really? - snaffling a glorious catch to all but eliminate his old side.
One of the tragedies of South Africa's fate at World Cup competitions over the years is the power of the narrative to cloud all sensible judgements of the actual merits of the team. South Africa have taken fairly ordinary teams to world events at times. Their T20I side of the last 12 months, however, is not one of those. They were a side with a the pefect mix of youth and experience, of power-hitting and quality batting, of fast bowling and spin bowling. You might almost contend it was something of a T20 golden generation, with two cracks at breaking the hoodoo in the space of a year.
But every ICC white-ball event is now something of a parole hearing for this South African side. There's anticipation, character development, rehabilitation, and that most cruel of things: hope.
But on this sun-washed Sunday morning in Adelaide, the darkness of evenings past - Sydney 1992, Birmingham 1999, Dhaka 2011, Auckland 2015 - seemed to envelop them. That amount of heartache might have made South Africa immune to such pain, but as they turned in a performance more limp than on any of those wretched days, it became clear that those wounds have never quite healed.
The sun continued to burn bright in Adelaide all game, but it was just about after dawn back home in South Africa that their fate was sealed. Some might laugh, some might cry, some might just go about their day, swearing they will never place their faith in this team again. But they will be back, of course, because they can't help believing one of these parole hearings will finally result in liberation. But as the door slams shut on them once more, it's increasingly difficult to say when.

Danyal Rasool is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @Danny61000