South Africa's loss to New Zealand was not a choke
The ghosts of 1992 had lingered on for 23 years before the fateful six by Grant Elliot purged a nation of 4 million of utter despondency. Elliot succeeded in exorcising Martin Crowe’s pain but ended up inciting excruciating agony on AB de Villiers’ men. Cricket at Auckland unraveled its merciless self as a Johannesburg-born cricketer sucked off every last drop of hope from South African hearts.
While the ecstatic 45,000 inside the stadium celebrated with cries of joy, silence ate away the souls of 11 men on the field.
The sight was unbearable. The delight and euphoria of the majority faded into the background as Dale Steyn, one of the most fearsome pacers in modern-day cricket, cried curled up on the Eden Park pitch. AB de Villers, whom Cricinfo describes as ‘a batsman of breathtaking chutzpah’, went down on the outfield. Eleven grown-up men wept uncontrollably on each others’ shoulders wishing their tears would take the pain away.
Not a choke
It was more than merely a defeat. South Africa, of all teams, cannot complain of being defeated in World Cup matches. Almost all those who were on the field today have had their fair share of ‘choking’; they, of all, were no alien to seizing defeat from the jaws of victory.
Yet they knew, this time, it was nothing like a choke. It wasn’t one of those instances of throwing away a winnable game; this wasn’t among those days when they would satiate their souls with the faintest aroma of triumph and decide to do every possible thing wrong thereafter.
The skipper had been hardly pretentious at media conferences throughout the tournament. His casual words reeked of quiet resolve. His yearning for the Cup was a testament to the immense misery of waiting that South Africa has had to undergo for years. Just about the time De Villiers began to dream about leading an egoless squad of individually brilliant players into the annals of history, disaster left him stranded in the familiar isle of desolation.
A nation had nurtured a dream today, a dream that was crushed by a similar dream of a different nation. It had taken years of anticipation to build on that dream, a dream that was crushed in no more than a space of 30 seconds.
Where did the knots go loose?
Perhaps it was never meant to be. Batting first, Faf du Plessis maneuvered the bowlers responsibly after initial hiccups and constructed a magnificent innings with able support from the skipper at the other end. De Villiers signed off with 65 from 45 balls after rain had curtailed the innings to a 43-over affair. New Zealand created a plethora of opportunities, but ensured that their wastage reprieved the Proteas more than once.
Fielding errors mirrored themselves on the other team too as De Villiers found himself guilty of missing a potentially match-altering run-out. Morne Morkel’s good job was conveniently undone when JP Duminy ran into Farhaan Berhadien resulting in the flooring of a chance 14 runs away from the Kiwi victory. Yet it was not until the penultimate delivery that anyone could write South Africa off.
Blame the stars, blame the rain, blame Duckworth-Lewis – but you cannot, for once, blame the Proteas. Commitment has never been a question – every ball has been chased to the boundary, every stroke has screamed purpose, every appeal has conveyed desire. South Africa, for the first time in years, lost out despite being the better side throughout.
South African coach, Domingo, summed it up aptly, "You need a little luck. You need things to go for you. You need to take your opportunities. There is such a small margin between winning and losing." On a day when both teams committed errors, none more than the other, it ultimately came down to the smaller moments.
Unfortunately for South Africa, they ended up on the less pleasurable side of the line.
Brendon McCullum certainly deserves credit for leading from the front and steering his men throughout the highs and lows, while Trent Boult, Daniel Vettori and Corey Anderson could have deserved no less glory than this for their bravado. As for Elliot, he would probably be content to let a single shot define his entire career.
The fruitless honor
The scene that materialized at Eden Park once the winning shot crossed the ropes, speaks volumes about the quality of encounter that it brought a conclusion to. Amidst the despair of failure and melancholy of shattered optimism, the Proteas were aware of the honour of being part of a match that will go down in history as one of the most keenly contested ones.
That it hardly matters now is a fragment of bitter truth. The heartbreak was as real as those poignant faces, so is the fact that it’s New Zealand who have earned an entry to MCG. The better team lost, not because they floundered when the stakes were high, but because they were outthought by a single man at the very death.
The sole consolation for a dejected South Africa squad as they head home would probably be that they did not choke in their fifth semi-final exit in the World Cup. Too early to speak, but this may just be the campaign that effectively spawns a turnaround for them.