TELFORD VICE, Cape Town
It’s October 16, 2003 at Yankee Stadium in New York and a spectator rises from her seat holding a piece of paper bearing that powerful word alone, uncluttered by explanation or punctuation.
She is, as all who see her know, a Red Sox fan. As in the Boston Red Sox, who had last won the World Series in 1918. Eighty-three years of hurt were writ large in the one word scrawled onto that piece of paper.
And here the Sox are, locked at 5-5 with the Yankees in the bottom of the 11th inning in game seven of the American League Championship Series; if you like the decider of the World Series semi-finals.
To the plate steps Yankee third-baseman Aaron Boone to face Tim Wakefield, a master of the alchemy of the knuckleball – a pitch so weird even its deliverer rarely knows which way it will swerve through the air or where it might end up.
Not this time. Anyone with a catholic interest in sport knows where Wakefield’s next pitch, his first of the inning and the last of the game, ended up.
Here’s how Charlie Steiner, commentating for New York radio station WCBS-AM, called it: “There’s a fly ball deep to left! It’s on its way! There it goes! And the Yankees are going to the World Series! Aaron Boone has hit a home run! The Yankees go to the World Series for the 30th time in their remarkable history! Aaron Boone down the left field line! They are waiting for him at home plate, and now he dives into the scrum! The Yankees win it six to five!”
South Africans, even those who grasp little of the above beyond the word “scrum”, will know just how the woman holding the sign felt.
Too often they have believed.
Too often their team have either let them down or come second in a tight contest.
The 2015 World Cup semi-final in Auckland, where New Zealand were the better team and won and epic struggle, is among the latter.
The 2011 World Cup quarter-final in Dhaka, where New Zealand were no way in hell the better team but still found a way to make South Africa lose, is among the former.
It wasn’t easy being a South African that night in Auckland, even in the pressbox – nothing is as cold as hot tears on cheeks that feel bruised even though they aren’t. But there was, at least, honour in the crisp air: they had gone down fighting.
Not so in Dhaka’s soupy night sky four years previously, into which South Africans who were there to watch and perchance report let loose volleys of invective laced with language that would make budgies drop dead off the perch.
Damn fools. Losers.
And here we are, bidding farewell today to a team about to stand up to one of the tallest orders in sport: a test series in Australia.
A month ago we might have sent them on the wing with a prayer – “Do your best, okes. Good luck. Gulp.”
Then those bloody New Zealanders arrived. And were properly beaten in a test and a bit.
It’s only the Kiwis, we said. Wait ’til the Aussies get here.
Now the Australians have limped home, hammered 5-0 for the first time in one-day history.
So, dare we? It’s too late to ask. Of course we do.
It’s in that spark in our hearts, the gleam in our eyes and the tension in our voices.
Believe? We do. Again.