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Guest Column

The horror, the horror

The World Cup knockout-phase monkey stays infernally glued to South Africa's backs for another four years

Robert Houwing
AB de Villiers shakes hands with Daniel Vettori after the defeat, New Zealand v South Africa, 3rd quarter-final, Mirpur, World Cup 2011, March 25, 2011

AB de Villiers was batting like a dream, but his run-out turned South Africa's campaign into a nightmare  •  Getty Images

The short- to medium-term future seems bright for the South African cricket team, whether you are talking the limited-overs formats or Tests. But a very solid chunk of their support base won't give the proverbial continental about that right now, either burying their heads in their hands in misery, or in more strident cases spewing out a stream of unflattering mantles - some of them will begin with the inevitable "c", I'm sure - for Graeme Smith and his stunned troops.
As a forlorn outgoing captain, Smith himself conceded after the World Cup quarter-final defeat to unfancied New Zealand in Mirpur on Friday, they will simply have to "take it on the chin".
It will be little consolation, too, that a limited yet gritty, hang-in-there outfit like New Zealand are increasingly regarded as good "tournament" material, while South Africa are somehow more accomplished by a mile as a bilateral "series" team.
Yet this particular South Africa squad had seemed to have just about everything at the ready in the quest to knock that theory for six; seemed to have covered so many crucial bases for the task of excelling at a World Cup on the subcontinent.
And for a few weeks, just for mundane record purposes now, they pretty much did. Even as he accepted the Man-of-the-Match award, New Zealand allrounder Jacob Oram described South Africa as "a damn good side".
Much, much earlier in the trial-by-patience contest at the Shere Bangla National Stadium, ESPNcricinfo's sharp-minded UK editor Andrew Miller had tweeted: "A bit of mystery in the spin department is what SA have been crying out for since readmission. They look frighteningly complete now." Just not quite complete enough, alas, to go all the way to World Cup glory at long last.
Why, even a maiden appearance in the final would have represented progress: instead the abject curse continues - this was its fifth ruinous visit - of South Africa never having won even a sole fixture in the World Cup knockout phase.
"Your guess is as good as mine," said poor "Biff" as Mark Nicholas, handling the televised post-match presentation ceremony, asked him (not the most opportune moment, though it was always coming, eh?) for possible reasons for this stark failure.
In a valiant attempt to be upbeat, Smith suggested that "in future [the team] might challenge the perception [of frailty] and get over the line". Sooner or later, it will. You would think it has to! The country has bright prospects in abundance to accompany its established, indisputable pool of world-class players. Imran Tahir has been a breath of fresh air, while we probably have not yet have seen the very best of Lonwabo Tsotsobe, JP Duminy, Faf du Plessis, Morne Morkel, Colin Ingram, David Miller and others, who generally boast ample time on their side.
But for the moment the post-mortem period, something South Africa's World Cup critics and observers are so used to grappling with since the bogey first reared its head in 1992, cannot be avoided.
How ironic that this South African team, so much more harmonious, I believe, and so much more dynamic, daring and versatile, than the class of 2007, actually tripped up one hurdle earlier than the side who turned out back then. That's cricket? Phew, she's a tough old cookie, in that case.
How ironic that this South African team, so much more harmonious, I believe, and so much more dynamic, daring and versatile than the class of 2007, actually tripped up one hurdle earlier than the side who turned out in the Caribbean
Smith led South Africa well in his ODI captaincy swansong here - sometimes outstandingly, many of sober mind will concur. The man has a phalanx of detractors (and it was forever thus) yet he won plaudits from all sorts of people, not least several of the star-studded international TV commentary team, for the new spirit in which he, and by extension his men, mostly kept the opposition guessing through flexibility, enterprise and courage of conviction.
I am pleased for him, in many ways, that he is gradually unbundling the cares of leadership, which may mean he can address more studiously the gremlins that wriggle up to an irksome degree in his own game. For in truth, perhaps in the underperformance at the crease of senior statesmen Smith (particularly) and Jacques Kallis lay at least one notable cause - not a whole lot else went wrong, when you think about it - of South Africa's exit at the last-eight juncture.
On the pitches of Asia, these were the sort of men, sporting so much street wisdom between them, who needed to bat through as often as possible, just making it that much easier for a team tally of 240 to become a 290, a 285 a 325... or even, ahem, a 172 to turn to the altogether more blissful sanctuary of 222.
And yet it never happened, in seven appearances apiece, even if Kallis had a better excuse as he fought cobwebs from a relatively long-term injury preceding the tournament. Smith struggled palpably for rhythm in his opening slot throughout the tournament, averaging 26 and never exceeding 45 in a single knock. He may have a fight on to keep his ODI berth as a rank-and-filer. Kallis averaged 32, but only flickered as the merciless accumulator everyone knows he can be, and his best innings was 69. Oh yes, and both "got in and got out" on the grim day they ran into New Zealand.
Doubts about the "bottle" of the national team when the chips are really down will be aired anew, like the forest fire that suddenly earns fresh lustre with the changing of a wind. The sniggerers will stay all a-titter.
Still, I don't believe this South Africa group, who overwhelmingly gave it their all and then some, deserve a rotten-tomato welcome home. Let's be gentlemen and ladies. Let's all take it on the conk, just as GC Smith and company are having to. And move on. Or at least bloody try to.

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