AB de Villiers sat in the pre-match press-conference at the Sydney Cricket Ground, ahead of the quarter-final against Sri Lanka. “We will not choke this time,” he said, firm in his words. A week later, he sat in another press-conference, post-match this time, at Eden Park.
His voice was cracking. Words weren’t coming out. He stopped speaking mid-sentence and stared into the distance many times. He broke down once, maybe twice; it was tough to keep count, easier to look away. “I cost us the game,” he said, talking about a botched run-out chance. South Africa had lost to New Zealand in the first semi-final in Auckland. True to his word though, they did not choke.
That last word can be used if you want to be harsh on them. But when grown men cry over a lost game of cricket, it is not a moment to be bullish. After Grant Elliott had sent the penultimate ball of the match for six, Dale Steyn collapsed on the pitch in a heap. This is the world’s most fearsome pace bowler, unlike any in this modern era. One six knocked the air out of his lungs. The picture of Elliott picking him up will be immortalized as an example of the spirit of the game. Steyn will take a long while truly getting up, though.
He cut a forlorn figure as handshakes began. At the other end of the ground, Morne Morkel sat alone. His tears invisible to the stands, but seen flowing freely by the camera, inconsolable even in the presence of his team-mates. They were all in such a state, walking back to the dressing room. Barring AB none stayed back on the field as television interviews began. In the humdrum of post-match activity, the value of this win was lost.
You can ask the 40,000-odd present there what it felt to see their team reach a first-ever World Cup final. Or you could read it on the faces of the Kiwi players, jubilant as they broke the curse of six previous semi-finals’ losses. Victory’s true worth on this night, however, wasn’t written on their jubilant faces. It was weighed down by the emptiness of that South African bench. It was described in their pain that they couldn’t even bear to watch a simple post-match ceremony. It hadn’t sunk in, how could it?
They broke a 23-year-old voodoo not too long ago, in Sydney where it had all begun in 1992. All their ill-luck, the ‘chokers’ tag, all of it is reminiscent of that one night when it rained. Ah the rain! It came down on Tuesday as well. Oblivious of its impact on the game, the crowd loitered around sipping beer, eating chips, clicking pictures, posing for the rain-cam on the giant screen.
Years down the line, this rain-break will not be remembered as the one that inflicted the infamous stupidity of “22-runs-required-off-one-ball” on this game. Yet anyone who will recall the dramatic intricacies of this night ought to calculate how it cost South Africa crucial momentum.
Some will argue that they did not lose because of the rain. Shoddy fielding, a botched-up batting plan, and the decision to play Vernon Philander ahead of Kyle Abbott were the real causes. True, but only to an extent.
Could Abbott have made as much impact as Matt Henry? Perhaps, yes. Did AB’s botched run-out and his team’s poor catching in general equate with Kane Williamson’s drop and missed run-out? Yes. The only difference in these moments was the pivotal aspect they brought to proceedings. For, a match like this is not about basics alone. It is about pressure.
Putting New Zealand under pressure of chasing and soaking up loads of it themselves, South Africa did both on the night. When batting, Faf du Plessis and Rilee Rossouw endured an exceptional spell of bowling from Trent Boult, backed up by some inspirational, attacking captaincy from Brendon McCullum. When the latter fired away as the chase began, Imran Tahir shrugged off the 25-run smacking dealt out to Dale Steyn an over ago and bowled a maiden over.
It resulted in two quick wickets off Morkel who added a third late in the innings. It was then, as Corey Anderson was dismissed with only one run given off the 38th over, that South Africa made a last-gasp effort. A short huddle and they broke away from the inconsistencies in the match thus far, backing themselves one more time, hoping to push the game until the very end, giving their all, whatever little they had left in the tank.
Running into Brian Lara in 1996, the last run fiasco against Australia in 1999, messing up in the rain in 2003, or even in 2007 and 2011, the last time against New Zealand itself, they had not made this last-gasp bid. THEY were chokers, not this team. Their only problem: they ran into a team fully aware of its capabilities, and completely evolved into a World Cup winning machine. Be it Boult coming back to bowl again and again, Anderson’s rearguard against Tahir and JP Duminy, or Henry’s debut in a World Cup semi-final, this is a unit that is currently living off the high of expectations.
South Africa played and lost in a dramatic fashion, though not nearly as dramatic as 1999. That was a choke of disastrous proportions. There was no coming back from mistakes then. On this night, they got back up, again, and again, and again. Yet, they were defeated, but not beaten, not in spirit anyway. And they cried, letting the tears flow freely, but did not choke.