The Rise Of The Proteas has been the longest ascent in the history of world cricket. Ever since they hit the scene running back in 1992 after a long absence, there has not been a year when the South African Cricket Team haven’t been amongst the top 3 test or ODI teams.
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The consistency with which the country has churned out top quality players, batsmen and bowlers, is astounding. One can name more South African greats over the last two decades than any other team- McMillan, Rhodes, Cronje, Kirsten, F. De Villiers, Boucher, Donald, Klusener, Kallis, AB De Villiers, Smith, Pollock, Steyn. It goes on, and as luck would have it, most of these players have overlapped generations, and helped one ease into the next.
They have been the only team to consistently challenge Australia for top spot, in both forms of the game, and have even succeeded when Australia was at its peak. They boast of the greatest Test Away record after Australia, and have lost the least number of Test Series in the last decade.
The Pledge (An Ordinary Choke)
Through all this, they’ve had a captain who was thrown into the deep end of the sea at age 22, in 2003. He made mistakes, he learned, and they stuck with this leader. Now, he is the most prolific captain in Test and ODI history, having led his team to a record number of match wins, home and away.
But. Apart from the inaugural Champion’s Trophy back in 1998, South Africa have not won a SINGLE ICC tournament that involves more than 4 teams. They have easily been the best bi-lateral team over 20 years, and have even snatched tri-series wins from Australia and Asian teams at opportune times. But never, I repeat, have they won any sort of World Cup- despite coming in to every one of these world cups since 1992 as outright favorites or consistently strong challengers.
The C word has been used often, but that doesn’t even begin to explain the problem. Even their under-19 teams have suffered from the same inadequacies, having not won any of the world cups despite reaching a final back in 2006.
The Spanish Football team, till 2008, were the best team in world sports never to have won a world cup. Murray, till now, is the best tennis player never to have won a Major. But now, South Africa, with its latest dazzling display of brilliance in yet another challenging Away Series against the top-ranked team in the world, have staked a claim to take over the mantle from Murray.
They are easily the greatest sporting team to have never won a Major event. It baffles the human mind, how a team of such high pedigree- or rather, TEAMS- consistently suffer a collective brainfade at the worst possible stage of a big tournament.
In 1992, it was not really their fault. It was the fault of the parents of Duckworth and Lewis, for giving birth to such geniuses, in order to contrive the failure of a brave ODI team one day. In 1996, it was the blinding genius of Brian Lara that removed a South African team from the quarterfinal- the only team that had won ALL of its 5 group stage matches by big margins. Then, Lara happened.
The turn (Something extraordinary)
In 1999, well, son, you just dropped the world cup. And tears flew for years. In 2003, the only consolation is that they crashed out in the Group Stages at Home. It wasn’t a knockout, for once. It would be brutally mean to blame it on the already-shattered Lance Klusener- possibly their greatest ODI player ever. So let’s blame it on the power of mathematics and miscommunication. But defending that last ball of Muralitharan after smashing him for 6, and finding yourself short of 1 run by- what else but D/L again- could render anyone suicidal forever.
In 2007, it was an almighty choke of epic proportions that reduced them to 25-5 against a rampaging Australian team. There was no way back.
In 2011, even Graeme Smith appeared shell-shocked. How in the world could his team do this to him twice in a row? Losing to a New Zealand team is near disgraceful, in sub-continental conditions no less. To call it a choke would be grave injustice to the word itself. Nobody will forget Kallis’s hook, and Oram’s phenomenal catch at the boundary. Or Duminy’s daft anti-shot.
The Prestige (You have to bring it back)
Let’s not even talk about the T20 World Cups.
Before their tour to England- at the point, the World No. 1 Test and ODI team- South Africa were under a bit of pressure when they lost Boucher in a practice match. But this pressure was nothing compared to what they create for themselves in the World Cups- on the biggest stage of them all. They destroyed England anyway, and are on the way to finishing the year as the best team in the world over all 3 forms, period.
All they have to do now is win a World Cup. That’s all.
And it isn’t even an ODI tournament. That, in all likelihood, will be the greatest healer of them all.
And a sign of the era that follows.