World Cup loss isn’t everything, but it hurts most

Sunday Times

TELFORD VICE, Cape Town

NOTHING exists in SA cricket, circa 2014-15, before or after the moment in which a skinny, bearded bloke from Joburg smashed Dale Steyn for six on an electric evening at Eden Park last month.

It is the instant that will be caught forever in last season’s amber, the flash of memory in which a dream ended and the nightmare rumbled back into a nation’s consciousness.

Steyn to Grant Elliott to oblivion. But as Steyn steamed in on legs that did not seem steady, even as Elliott wound up to play the shot of his life, and even as the ball arched into the night sky, SA could have won.

Consequently the heart of their World Cup campaign kept beating for long moments after the plug had been pulled. It no longer pumped blood. Instead, it pumped tears. It didn’t seem fair to go out like that. Not when things had seemed so different.

SA had scraped themselves off the canvas after being smacked silly by India and clambered back up after they were manhandled by Pakistan. They had taken one step beyond anything they had done before by playing perfect cricket in their quarter-final against Sri Lanka.

They could win and lose and lose and win again. In their fragility was a sense that they were playing on their own terms and not in accordance with the dark whim of some plot to deny them the glory they had worked so hard to know.

Even Elliott’s fateful blow fitted the new script. He had to earn his accolades in a match in which both teams had success and made mistakes. The difference was New Zealand recovered from their errors better than SA.

SA most damaging mistake by discarding the deserving Kyle Abbott for the semi-final. They should have left out Steyn, who for the entire tournament was a shadow of the best bowler in the world that he truly is.

A game later the New Zealanders knew how SA felt when they suffered their only loss of the World Cup. Pity for them it came in the final. What Brendon McCullum said afterwards could easily have come out of AB de Villiers’ mouth. Or it might have had SA not been in the game until the penultimate delivery of the match, not outplayed from the first few overs like the New Zealanders were by Australia.

“I thought the way that we played throughout this tournament, the brand of cricket that we’ve played, the way we’ve entertained people and left nothing out there in terms of the character and attitude on the field, you know, I think it’s been one hell of a ride and something that we’ll remember for the rest of our lives.”

So will SA’s players, however much they try to forget. They could dull the thud of their memory by considering that since the end of the previous season they had won 27 of the 45 matches they played across all formats and lost only 15, that they claimed seven of the 10 bilateral or trilateral series they contested, that they beat Australia in a final, and won their first one-day rubber in Sri Lanka and a test series there for the first time since 1993.

And that they did all that without those giant ghosts of seasons past, Graeme Smith, Jacques Kallis and Mark Boucher. The transfer of authority to Hashim Amla and De Villiers and their lieutenants has been peaceful and is now complete. That is more important than any tally of wins and losses and even more than a failed World Cup campaign.

This generation of SA players grew up in 2014-15. Sometimes, like when they hung tough to beat Sri Lanka in the Galle test and then hung even tougher to survive in Colombo, they did so the hard way. Other times – when Australia were beaten with almost 10 overs to spare in the triangular series final in Harare – it came more easily.

But all of that flew over Eden Park’s boundary last month. “I have absolutely no idea what to do from here on in,” De Villiers said in the aftermath.

Neither do we. And it hurts.

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