From exciting entrants at the 1992 Benson and Hedges World Cup (as the ICC Cricket World Cup was known back then) to be crowned ‘jinxed’ at the end of it to then be anointed chokers – a moniker that has stuck far longer and unfairly than it should have, South Africa are finally carrying the tag that is arguably more appropriate to them – perennial underachievers no one is talking about ahead of the ICC Cricket World Cup 2019 in England.

The Early Aura and Settled Dust

“We (South Africa) are well aware that they (England) are probably under a lot more pressure than we are. They are hosts; they are considered to be favourites, and that’s an advantage for us. We obviously want to win, and if we do, it would send a massive statement.”

Lungi Ngidi, one of South Africa’s enterprising young fast bowlers, was not understating the fact as he sized up the lung opening match against England, currently ranked the no.1 team in the world. He, also, talked about “owing them (India) one”, after India had the better of South Africa on their tour to the southern hemisphere and do have an impressive 3-1 record against India at the World Cups.

South Africa owe themselves a World Cup trophy, one that they come tantalizingly close to on more than one occasion with four semi-final appearances in their short World Cup history following their readmission in 1991 post the apartheid ban. That there is not even a faint whisper of a discussion about South Africa’s possibility to hold aloft their first ever World Cup trophy is perhaps a blessing as much as it is telling sign, a far cry from previous editions when South Africa were considered hot picks, frontrunners, and feisty challengers.

With the ICC Cricket World Cup returning to English shores after two decades, it has aroused painful, evocative memories of one of the most irreconcilable times in South Africa’s cricket history, a time frozen in history as an indelible wound on the minds of many South African aficionados. And there are many.

Almost instant favourites the world over upon readmission, Jonty Rhodes answered to ‘is-it-a-bird-is-it-a-plane’ commentary clichés that reminded the world of another famous South African fielding great, Colin Bland. Allan Donald was not called ‘White Lightning’ for just the white paint on his face. There was Brian McMillan, the all-rounder rightly nicknamed ‘Bucket hands’ for his safe fielding in the slips. South Africa, in many ways, had the right ingredients and a near perfect recipe for world domination. That that aura has waned even as the team has discovered new individual powerhouses must mark them as one of the stranger evolutions in world cricket.

Not many within the team agreed with Kepler Wessels’s ruthless style and regimented training of the team. But few could argue as South Africa entered the semi-finals of the very first World Cup they participated in that South Africa were here to stay, competitive right off the gate. It is an aura they have wrestled to regain ever since.

It would have been quite the astonishing feat had South Africa lifted the World Cup trophy in only their first outing. The scene seemed set for the incredible as South Africa pushed past Australia and then despite the loss to New Zealand, recovered ground with victories against Pakistan and India even in the backdrop of a referendum in their country about their place in the world.

Wessels led with the bat as South Africa stunned Australia in their first match. The 1992 World Cup, reminiscent of the 2019 edition’s structure of every team playing the other, saw South Africa fix with a date with England in the semi-final only to walk away with a result many called jinx, a notion that would stay with them even as another more insidious tag was being attached to their efforts at world, multi-level tournaments.

Wessels called it a calculated risk as South Africa batted last in the semi final against England. Reduced to needing 22 runs off 13 balls to make the final by a rain rule at the time that called for taking off the least productive overs of the team batting first, by the time Brian McMillan and Dave Richardson, the current outgoing ICC chief executive and then South Africa’s quiet wicketkeeper-batsman, rain played havoc a final time. Suddenly the impossible was staring South Africa in the face as Wessels and company failed to hide their dismay on the balcony in Sydney. England were celebrating even as the boos rang out as McMillan carried out the farce of a run even as South Africa needed 22 runs off just 1 ball.

In many ways, that defining moment, etched in memory, came to define South Africa as strong frontrunners but also, as chronic heartbreakers for their new legions of fans and worshippers.

Innovative thinking under a progressive minded captain in Hansie Cronje came to bust as South Africa followed up 1992 with four semi-finals, each time seeming to cause more pain as the serrated knife wound tore deeper into the heart and flesh, blood and bone of South Africa’s resurgence post-apartheid. It is little wonder then that South Africa’s cricket history since 1991 is sometimes viewed as split, pre and post Cronje, to describe the shock and dent of match-fixing and the almost too facile face of greed personified that seemed to send South Africa back to the dark ages.

History is replete with South Africa’s almost-made-it tales but perhaps none more evocative than the 1999 semi final when South Africa were perhaps more vociferous than ever about their World Cup ambitions, with ‘Zulu’ leading the way. Most things were unconventional about Lance Klusener including his stance at the crease more reminiscent of a baseball hitter than a batsman. Striking fearlessly in the face of back-to-the-wall affairs, Klusener, Player of the Tournament in the 1999 ICC Cricket World Cup, was almost singlehandedly batting South Africa out of trouble and into the realm where trophy was becoming a serious possibility.

On that fateful day of the semi final against Australia, Klusener seemed to be the cowboy riding the herd back in the right direction at sundown. But then the unthinkable happened. Stifled by the bowling of the wily Shane Warne, South Africa who had lost their way after Jacques Kallis and Jonty Rhodes set up a platform, South Africa began to wilt under the pressure. Runs became harder to come by, their initiative quickly slipping away.

Without Klusener, perhaps South Africa would not have come as far as being labelled chokers in the first place, such was the widening gap as Warne applied the brakes on South Africa’s dreams. But Klusener continued his defiant streak. Two boundary shots brought South Africa within touching distance of a first – a World Cup final.

Donald was living a dangerous life at the other end. A calculative bowler who unsettled the best batsmen in the world, as a batsman, he showed nervous carelessness at the crease. Some might have even said, this was comeuppance. Suspended disbelief followed as Klusener not only ran to the danger end in pursuit of the solitary run that would have given South Africa their first final but also, ran right off the ground, leaving behind a distraught, disgruntled, shame faced Donald behind to digest what has happened.

Uncannily clinical but not World Cup

If the dreaded rain rule from 1992 gave away to Duckworth-Lewis method, the 2003 home edition of the ICC Cricket World Cup proved to be South Africa’s most embarrassing to date. Needing to win against Sri Lanka in the league stage, Mark Boucher prematurely punched the air, believing he had scored the team’s winning runs in a rain curtailed match. Shock ran through the dressing room as the team discovered they had only made the par score, failing to add on the one run that would make them winners. As rain came down harder, South Africa’s hopes evaporated, the ignominy staying with them like an ungainly paper sticker on an old jam bottle.

Ghost of the Bogeyman: The bogeyman alone would have sufficed. But in South Africa’s case, the World Cup phobia is so deep, the bogeyman and his ghost are both par for the course. Some would claim South Africa have the chokehold on themselves when it comes to finals. The 1993 Hero Cup or the 1996 Titan Cup are called for to explain how South Africa have had a precedence of faltering at the final step when victory was in sight.

What is perhaps more true of South Africa is that they can be uncannily clinical in their planning and execution but not World Cup flexible when they are thrown into a do-or-die situation. Not for nothing, Paddy Upton, the mental conditioning coach, stated matter-of-factly, “In every big tournament like the World Cup, only one team wins and seven or eight teams end up on the losing side. I think the ‘chokers’ label for South Africa is a little bit too exaggerated and it’s also unfair.”

The 1996 World Cup edition was an obvious case in point. Having won all of their round robin matches, South Africa seemed destined to win the World Cup trophy under Hansie Cronje. But then when Brian Lara fired up for the West Indies, South Africa’s best laid bowling plans fell apart. There would be no respite then or in 2007 when South Africa made it to the semi final only to unravel. With South Africa reduced to tatters early in the innings against eventual winners Australia, no amount of rearguard action from Justin Kemp could resuscitate life into the challenge, shipwrecked on high seas.

That the coach, Ottis Gibson, himself was touchy when the 1999 semi-final was brought up suggests South Africa are still weary of looking under their bed at night. While he jokily brushed off the speculation about the memory in front of the press, the fact that he stated that “as a team we have decided we will not discuss it” suggests that more than merely shutting the door on the past, South Africa are jittery to even contemplate the subject of jeopardy at the World Cup by the trigger of memories on a team that was too infantile at the time of it happening.

It is hard to explain how a team that had a powerhouse like Jacques Kallis playing five World Cups and scoring 9 half-centuries, just six shy of Sachin Tendulkar’s record and had Herschelle Gibbs scoring two centuries and had the record feat of scoring 6 6’s in an over could have such an ignominious history at the World Cup.

South Africa have not been in this underwhelming a position in any edition of the World Cup since their reintegration in 1991. With the rather versatile but curiously elusive AB de Villiers having called his retirement from the international game abruptly last year, South Africa are not without potential though they are perhaps without star power. Hashim Amla’s form is under the radar. There are injury concerns for the veteran spearhead, Dale Steyn, as there have been for the contemporary striker, Kagiso Rabada. The fulcrum of the team rests on the captain, wicketkeeper-batsman, Quinton de Kock, and David Miller, worker ants without the mileage of international awe-inspiring credence.

While South Africa have their tried and tested spinners, particularly in Imran Tahir, who will call time after the World Cup, the fickle English weather is of concern. With South African teams of the past almost too formulaic to the point of being rigid, Ottis Gibson is not wrong to worry about how South Africa would adapt when conditions are wet one day and sub-continent dry on another.

Faf du Plessis was being earnest if not entirely factual about South Africa’s attempts to mentally bridge the gap between expectations and accomplishments, “I’m on the same level as the coach when it comes to the importance of the mental side. I’m a big believer in positive visualization, how to remain calm and I feel it has had value for my own game. So, I can relate that to the players, how important it is to be present in the moment; for instance when there’s been a dropped catch. There is nothing you can do about it and it’s about how you change your mindset.”

To be fair, South Africa have been through the rigmarole of mental conditioning training before, even employing Mike Horn, adventurer and motivational speaker at one point.

It was intriguing that du Plessis used the example of a dropped catch. Was he alluding to the moment that froze in time for Herscelle Gibbs after he was mocked at by the reprieved batsman, Steven Waugh, with the words, “You just dropped the World Cup” in the league match in the 1999 ICC Cricket World Cup? That was the match that allowed Australia to move forward on the win and then to use that win to garner points in the tied semi-final to move into the final and subsequently lift the trophy.

Although the vast majority of the cricket world remembers that image of a doleful Donald hanging his head low and Klusener so distraught he wanted to disappear in haste, few remember that the 1999 World Cup was, also, when Australia had to claw their way back and it was not always graceful.

Few remember that the 1999 ICC Cricket World Cup was also the venue when one of the most disgraceful passages of play was carried out as Australia and West Indies decided to deliberately play slow, to shut out New Zealand to whom Australia had lost to and would not have gained points if their Trans Tasmanian neighbours had made it.

The jury is still out about whether South Africa were overcomplicating it or simply being too rigid. When du Plessis talked about South Africa “trying to do Superman things at the World Cup in the past”, about “wanting to do things differently, and be something really special”, it seems to allude not so much to South Africa’s potential but to desperation where every exit at the ICC Cricket World Cup raised many painful but pertinent questions, conveniently buried under this rather misleading label that would allude to no other shortcomings in South Africa’s armour.

Chokers? Should the label apply to the team who has found unique, albeit ignominious, ways to exit the tournament or to those would not want to stretch their minds to unearth where South Africa have kept coming up short? Maybe the tournament of no expectations will have some answers.