Proteas left to ponder 'what ifs' after another World Cup exit

South Africa's 'bittersweet' exit from the T20 World Cup was far from inglorious, but it exacerbated the country's chequered history in cricket's global showpiece events

Of all South Africa's ever-growing record of World Cup heartbreak, their bittersweet exit at this year's T20 World Cup might just count as their most unlucky.

The Proteas have a chequered history with cricket's knock-out tournaments, but their mental resilience and fortitude for the fight in this tournament could barely have been stronger.

Instead, South Africa exited this World Cup with the same amount of wins at their group's two semi-finalists, and the only team to have so far beaten tournament favourites England.

"The win was important, but a bittersweet ending for us," said captain Temba Bavuma after handing England their first loss in Sharjah overnight.

"We achieved what we wanted to do in terms of winning but didn't win well enough. We gave our all with the bat and with the ball.

"But I'm very proud of the side and think there's a lot we can take away from this. This will give us experience and learnings we can take from this World Cup going forward."

Still, South Africa's record of having never made a World Cup final extends for another year.

Coach Mark Boucher, the former international wicketkeeper, credited the performance of the team after they were "under a lot of pressure after having lost our first game".

"This team know we are on a journey, an upward curve, that we are learning along the way," Boucher said. "We by no means are a finished product.

"These games will stand us in very good stead because every game we played was under pressure.

"That's one thing we probably haven't done very well in the past is playing big games, pressurised games, and we really did well in this particular competition.

"It's a young side, we are still developing and hopefully we can go from strength-to-strength from here, take this confidence through.

"So we are heading in the right direction, we just need a bit of good luck and a bit of fortune to go our way and hopefully we can sort of put something in the trophy cabinet soon."

Bizarre dismissal caps off ideal Aussie start

South Africa lost their opening match of this tournament to Australia, sent in to bat in unfamiliar conditions, they lost key player Quinton de Kock to a bizarre dismissal as the ball looped back onto his stumps from a mishit.

De Kock's surprise absence in a controversy over Cricket South Africa's directive the players take the knee in an anti-racism gesture threatened to derail the campaign.

But the team won that match in his absence, then stuck together as de Kock made a U-turn on his stance, then beat Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and England to finish equal top of the group on points, with four wins from five games.

They finished with a net run rate just 0.477 away from the semi-finals, and needed to keep England to 48 runs less than they scored.

"We beat the in-form side in world cricket tonight, it's tough for the guys in the change room," Boucher said.

"The equation was very difficult for us to have to get through. I just said to the guys, just try and control what we can control.

"We did the job today, but yeah, it's quite bitter."

South Africa's history of heartbreak

1992 World Cup – semi-final

Image Id: BF64492C08304F3DA98F2BAEAE3A6300 Image Caption: The Proteas' impossible position in Sydney // Getty

South Africa, allowed into their first World Cup in the run-up to the end of apartheid, were on the cusp of a fairytale appearance when rain stopped play with the Proteas needing 22 off 13 balls for victory. But, by the time they came back on the field just 10 minutes later, the scoreboard showed they needed an impossible 22 off one ball under the rules governing rain-affected matches at the time

1996 World Cup – quarter-final

Image Id: 3C69CEADEF8E4670A08DBF39333FD66B Image Caption: Lara salutes his quarter-final century in Karachi // Getty

South Africa made a selection blunder in omitting Allan Donald for spinner Paul Adams on a seamers' paradise in a Karachi quarter-final. They went to pieces in the field as Brian Lara scored a dashing 111 in their quarter-final against a West Indies team that bundled out the heavily-favoured Proteas.

1999 World Cup – super-sixes

Image Id: 170754AE690B4AC5AE6E7DEA6EE3B17C Image Caption: Waugh launches a six at Headingley in 1999 // Getty

Steve Waugh denies he uttered the famous sledge "You've just dropped the World Cup" (it was something more prosaic like "you've just cost South Africa the match") but it's ingrained in cricket folklore now. Herschelle Gibbs famously dropped a simple chance when attempting to flick it up in celebration. Waugh, then on 56, went on to make an unbeaten 120 and guide Australia to the target of 272 in the final over.

Gibbs drops the World Cup

1999 World Cup – semi-final

Image Id: E18773B2934D4E09B9B0FD961D66B034 Image Caption: Australia celebrates after Allan Donald forgot how to run // Getty

Shaun Pollock bowled impressively as South Africa, despite 50s from Michael Bevan and Steve Waugh, held Australia to 213. But with leg-spin great Shane Warne taking four wickets, Australia stayed in the match. But it seemed Lance Klusener was set to win it off his own bat, despite having just last man Allan Donald for company. With four balls left, they needed just one to win but, as Klusener set off for a single off a mishit, Donald stayed in his ground, dropped his bat and finally ran as a relay throw involving Mark Waugh and Damien Fleming led to the bowler underarming the ball to wicketkeeper Adam Gilchrist to complete a run-out. The match was tied but eventual champions Australia went into the final on superior net run rate.

The epic tied 1999 World Cup semi-final

2000 ICC KnockOut semi-final

South Africa were firm favourites for the semi-final against India in Nairobi, but a splendid innings from Sourav Ganguly who smashed and unbeatn 141 from as many balls put the heat back on the Proteas. Chasing India's 295, South Africa's top order duly wilted as they lost their top four batters in the opening eight overs, and eventually succumbed by 95 runs.

2002 Champions Trophy – semi-final

A semi-final rematch for India and South Africa – this time in Colombo. Again India batted first, and with fifties to Sehwag and Yuvraj, plus 49 from Dravid, India amassed 261. The Proteas looked to be cruising to the victory target as Herschelle Gibbs smashed a century. South Africa had reached 1-192 when Gibbs retired after the 36th over, suffering from heat exhaustion. It was all the invitation Harbhajan Singh needed, and the Proteas collapsed, losing by 10 runs.   

2003 World Cup – group stages

Image Id: 9F7CF629EC2D43F4A40C6B2ABA3AA284 Image Caption: Shaun Pollock is inconsolable after messing up his maths // Getty

Effectively a knock-out game against Sri Lanka, the rain again played a hand in South Africa's demise described as Kallis as "perhaps the worst of all" as Shaun Pollock got his Duckworth-Lewis calculations horribly wrong in Durban. With rain coming fast, the calculations came from the dressing room for Klusenar and Mark Boucher – 229 was needed by the end of the 45th over. Boucher, having hit Muralidaran for six to reach 229, celebrated then blocked the final ball of the 45th over and turned down a single as the heavens opened. As the rain tumbled, the Proteas jubilation turned to confusion and despair – 229 was the score for a tie, not a win. The tournament hosts were out.

Notable for Sri Lanka wicketkeeper Kumar Sangakkara's mental disintegration of Protea skipper Pollock as he came out to bat, there has finally been at least one skeleton removed from the closet now, with the pair burying the hatchet as co-commentators during the 2017 Champions Trophy.

2004 Champions Trophy – group stage

A place in the semi-finals was on the line as South Africa met the West Indies at The Oval in their final group match. Herschelle Gibbs had blazed a century on a slow pitch to lead South Africa to 6-246. English summer rain forced the second innings to be played on the reserve day, and the match had been set for a nailbiting finish. Until Shaun Pollock's 10th and final over, the 47th of the run chase. Pollock leaded 19 runs to Ricardo Powell and Shiv Chanderpaul, and the West Indies cantered home by five wickets.  

2006 Champions Trophy – semi-final

Captain Graeme Smith called correctly to win the toss but then errored in opting to bat first when previous matches at Jaipur had suggested the best of the batting conditions were in the evening. But still, South Africa made the most of it to reach 8-258. Enter Chris Gayle, who took a healthy liking to Shaun Pollock's gentle mediums and creamed five overs for 34 runs, literally smashing him out of the attack. Gayle was on a roll, and his unbeaten 133 helped the Windies roll to a six-wicket win with six overs remaining.  

2007 World Cup – semi-final

Image Id: 575842B856D548A3AB6C5690811F7266 Image Caption: The Aussies celebrate another McGrath wicket // Getty

In 2007 in a much-hyped Anzac Day semi-final the weight of expectation hung heavily on the South Africans' shoulders as they ran into a rampant Australia in St Lucia, blasted away by the pace of Shaun Tait and the nagging line and length of Glenn McGrath to be all out for 149. Michael Clarke's assured unbeaten 60 ensured Australia made light work of the chase.

2009 Champions Tropy – group stage

Expectations were high for the Proteas with the 2009 tournament on home soil. But this would prove their most dismal tournament yet. A defeat to Sri Lanka in a rain-affected match brought back ill memories, but a thumping win against New Zealand had restored confidence. That evaporated as with a home semi-final on the line, South Africa's bowlers allowed the unlikely Owais Shah to steal a march and smash 98. Shah, Paul Collingwood and Eoin Morgan fifties helped England to 323. And despite a valiant century from skipper Graeme Smith, South Africa's batting fell apart around him. England captain Andrew Strauss denied the cramping Smith use of a runner, which predictably ended in a run out, as the tail folded and England won by 22 runs. 

2011 World Cup – quarter-final

Image Id: 4C4AD604EF524C34909575626CEF76FF Image Caption: The Black Caps got into the head of du Plessis // Getty

South Africa had bossed the group stages and entered the quarter-final heavily favoured over a Black Caps side that had just snuck into the final eight. Jesse Ryder hit 83 and the New Zealanders limped to a well below par 221. South Africa were cruising at 2-108 when Kallis was well caught by Jacob Oram on the fence.

When Faf du Plessis called de Villiers through for a suicide single and ran their star batsman out, the Kiwis climbed into the young Protea, surrounding him, impressing on him the enormity of what he'd done. South Africa couldn't handle it and crumbled, losing their last eight wickets for 64 and were bundled out by 49 runs.

2013 Champions Trophy – semi-final

In the lead-up to this match against England, AB de Villiers spoke passionately of South Africa's chance to shed their chokers tag. Then they lost 8-80 – de Villiers with a nine-ball duck – and were all out for 175 as James Tredwell claimed 3-19 in a player-of-the-match performance. South Africa-born Jonathan Trott smashed an unbeaten 82 and England won by seven wickets with more than 12 overs spare. "I think we did choke in the game," coach Gary Kirsten said afterwards. "You've got to accept that's what it is. It's definitely a dark mist that hangs over South African cricket in knockout events."

2015 World Cup – semi-final

Image Id: CE8FE04A1CBF48B48AF82D61FDB08957 Image Caption: De Villiers blows a run-out chance in Auckland // Getty

Controversy before this match even began: South Africa's complicated objectives of racial transformation saw a half-fit Vernon Philander injected into the XI at the expense of Kyle Abbott, who had been outstanding. Later reports suggested the change was made at the behest of South Africa's sports minister and captain AB de Villiers had nearly withdrawn from the game in protest.

Nevertheless, we were treated to a thriller in Auckland. In a rain-interrupted innings, South Africa didn't break stride, adding 65 in their final five overs to set New Zealand a revised victory target of 298.

Image Id: 814E9968439A4121BA5AC2979A9140AE Image Caption: Duminy, Berhardien almost collide in dropping a catch // Getty

Having endured a Brendon McCullum blitzkrieg, his dismissal sparked a wobble with Martin Guptill run out in a horrible mix-up with Ross Taylor. South Africa had had more than their fair share of chances to deliver the knock out blow to the Black Caps: De Villiers fumbled at the stumps to miss running out Corey Anderson, who put on a century partnership with Grant Elliott; wicketkeeper Quinton de Kock missed a gather to blow another clear run-out chance; substitute fielder Farhaan Behardien and JP Duminy nearly collided in the deep and neither caught the late-innings opportunity.

With two balls left, New Zealand needed five to win. A nerveless Elliott sealed the win by smashing fast bowler Dale Steyn for six off the second-last delivery.

Image Id: E3F31987E54B47A9B5E1699691B1B35A Image Caption: Elliott and Steyn at the 2015 World Cup semi-final // Getty

2016 T20 World Cup – group stage

The Proteas started well by putting up 229 against England, who ran it down to set a chasing record, and South Africa's bowlers conceded 20 wides. Needing to beat West Indies to stay in the tournament, the batting collapsed – an early run-out saw AB de Villiers dropped down to No.5 but he was in before the Powerplay was over anyway. Still, West Indies needed 20 off the final two overs but Chris Morris and Kagiso Rabada failed to defend it, with Carlos Brathwaite smashing a final-over six to seal the win.

2017 Champions Trophy – group stage

Proteas rocked by dramatic run outs

The world No.1 ODI side coming into the UK-based tournament, South Africa had talked up their chances of shedding history and claiming this trophy and skipper de Villiers spoke with one eye on the 2019 World Cup at the same venues. A shock defeat to eighth-ranked Pakistan, a hamstring injury cloud handing over the captain, and a showdown for a semi-final spot with defending champions India proved too much for the Proteas. From the solid ground of 2-140, the Proteas folded to the tune of 8-51. Three calamatious run-outs characterised their batting – two of them due to poor decisions from Faf du Plessis that saw the demise of de Villiers then David Miller – and a lacklustre bowling effort resulted in a chastening eight-wicket defeat wtih 12 overs unbowled.

2019 World Cup – group stage

South Africa came into this tournament openly admitting their problems at previous events were mental and they would be taking a low-key, low-stress approach to this World Cup, then promptly lost their first three games and were derided for their "meekness and passivity" on the field, with defeat to Bangladesh a particularly low point. Then Dale Steyn was ruled out of the tournament with a shoulder injury he carried into the tournament, having not bowled a ball. To add salt to the wounds, revelations then emerged that star batsman AB de Villiers had offered to come out of retirement in the lead up to the World Cup, only to be turned down by the selectors.

Bangladesh blitz mauls Proteas

A fifth loss against Pakistan confirmed their exit at the group stage and captain Faf du Plessis labelled it "borderline embarassing". "We are a mediocre team at the moment because we are making the same mistakes," du Plessis said. "One step forward and two steps back is not a good team. The guys are playing with low confidence and making the same mistakes. It just rolls on, it’s such a snowball effect," he said, adding the exit was the lowest point of his career.