He makes frivolous statements, just like a confident hyperactive overachieving prodigy would, like, “We’re the best team this tournament” after losing to India and Pakistan in the group stages, or “We were the better team” after losing 1-4 to Australia last year. But you don’t feel like mocking the man. You know he’s saying it because he genuinely believes it. Hell, not only him, most of cricketing fans believe it too—the best team never to have won the World Cup.
There’s no doubting that. But the ‘never’ part…it’s not about the C-word anymore, it’s just difficult to feel sorry for a team that loses to India, Pakistan and New Zealand in the World Cup, and expects to still win it on reputation. Why? Because they’re the strongest team on paper. And perhaps, most of the time, on the field. Except for during the big moments. Those crucial moments. The main moments, as it cruelly so often comes down to when South Africa plays a knockout game.
This time, it was de Villiers himself.
He uprooted stumps before the ball could reach his hands, dove into boundaries before the ball reaches the boundary, and dove into the field before the ball reached his hands. He wanted it so bad, that in his mind, he had already played it all out. There was only the mere formality of actually executing it. And for a superman of his abilities, this was really not a big deal. Of course, his teammates followed him in every way possible: Duminy dove in front of Behardien to make a hash of a catch that would have dismissed Elliot and won them the match. De Kock missed the stumps twice from close range and gave away byes each time.
Both times, Elliot was given the strike. Both times, the Kiwi struck telling blows. It was utter pandemonium in the field. Every time it looked as though New Zealand was getting ahead, and every time they were pulled back by their own nerves—showing that it was their biggest game too. But their nerves were no match for South Africa’s; you could literally see them crawl out of AB’s sinewy body and bounce around across the field until they crashed against each other accidentally.
The ball almost always found open spaces, or open palms, or open jaws. This was the best fielding side in the world, fielding their way into oblivion, making sure that there was possibly no way New Zealand could not, not win the game. The terms flowed—unlucky, D&L, rain, crowd—but surely, South Africa had to believe they were the better team. Only this time, the better team choked—yes, I will use that word because that’s what they did—and refused to defy history. If a team conspires to not win a single big moment, drop catches and miss run-out chances like Pakistan would, what would you call it if not a choke?
Succumbing to pressure during the make-or-break points in a tennis match—that’s often only what separates the good players from the best.
Federer knows that he can win tiebreaks, Djokovic knows that he can come from behind at any point in the set, and they know when to step it up and when to take it easy during service games. They don’t lose focus on the big points, except for when they’re playing perhaps against each other. Guys like Berdych, Del Potro, Murray—they probably play as well throughout matches, but when it comes to saving that break point, they tank. South Africa is that team. They will forever remain that team, because despite having the best batsman, best bowler and best fielders in the world, they do not have a World Cup Final to their name. This was their dream team—a team that struggled to fill the 5th bowler slot after the retirement of national treasure Kallis.
McCullum and co. didn’t snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. They were handed victory, not on a platter, but on a flimsy paper plate, which they had to eventually balance. South Africa’s choke was almost cured by a self-inflicted Heimlich maneuver midway through the match, but then the rain came. D&L came into play. Memories came flooding back. And the field, which wasn’t really wet, became a slippery peal of a skating rink—that saw the world’s best reduce themselves to sad, lonely, sobbing men that just couldn’t get the job done.
It’s easy to feel very sad for Morne Morkel and AB de Villiers. But they signed up for this. And they gave the world a match they’d never forget, in the process, and became yet another footnote in their own history textbooks.