The ‘C’ word is back to haunt South Africa

cricket blogs for Yahoo Cricket Columns

Will anyone ever again consider South Africa as a serious contender for the World Cup or any other major event? Will the bookies ever again install South Africa as favourites? Will any punter back them to emerge champions? The answer to all these questions has to be a resounding "no" following the tragicomic events of Friday.

Here was a team playing as champions. Here was the team to beat for the title said the experts and almost everyone else. Here was a team that was peaking at the right time after topping a highly competitive group. Here was a team that had an invincible look about it with an array of in-form batsmen, an all-time great in Jacques Kallis, arguably the best fielding unit in the game, a bowling line-up headed by the best fast bowler in the business and including a fascinating mix of spinners and led by a fiercely competitive and intensely patriotic captain. And yet here they were going down to a side which has always had the bridesmaid tag written all over it, with a modest batting and bowling line-up and one that has never progressed beyond the semifinals in the World Cup – and this after being well in control of the match. The only difference is that if New Zealand are the perennial bridesmaids of international cricket – save for one special occasion  when they won the Champions Trophy in Nairobi in 2000 – South Africa are the perennial chokers of international cricket – even if they too have one title in their bag, the inaugural Champions Trophy or the mini World Cup as it was termed then in 1998.

Try as they might South Africa never seem capable of ripping off the C word associated with them. They have blundered and fumbled and faltered so often in vital matches and these have been well chronicled in cricketing history. One had thought that with their remarkable achievement in that famous game at Johannesburg against Australia in 2006 they had shrugged off the choker's tag once and for all. But one triumph cannot cover up for the several instances of making a mess of things when things have been in their favour. No match is lost till it is won goes the well known sporting adage; the reverse could well be true as far as South Africa is concerned. 

The examples are just too many to be dismissed as bad luck or ill fortune. True their first such instance of faltering at the doorstep of victory can be put down to misfortune – the World Cup semifinal against England in 1992. But thereafter they have exited the World Cup in bizarre fashion. Four years later in the sub continent they were the in-form team winning all their five preliminary matches and entering the knockout phase as favourites. They went down most unexpectedly at the first hurdle to the West Indies who had just been defeated by Kenya in the most sensational upset in World Cup history.

Three years later in England they were off to a roaring start winning all their first four group matches before a shocking defeat to Zimbabwe had far reaching consequences. Their ultimate elimination in the famous semifinal against Australia could be traced to losing this match. The events in the Super Six encounter against Australia and the semifinal are too well known to need any more painful recounting here. In 2003 playing at home occurred the infamous miscalculation in their final pool game against Sri Lanka that caused their exit at the preliminary stage. Four years later in the Caribbean they entered the tournament having just taken over from Australia as the No 1 ranked ODI team and consequently their semifinal against the reigning champions was a hyped up encounter. Not unexpectedly considering their wobbly reputation South Africa crumbled going down by seven wickets. And now comes the latest in the long list of choking when it matters most or  when it comes to the big stage.

Writing after South Africa won the mini World Cup at Dhaka in November 1998, Wisden editor Matthew Engel observed that by emerging triumphant South Africa had firmly established themselves as long range World Cup favourites. Seven months later in England they faltered not for the first time. The epidemic has continued and there are no signs that it will abate.