There were a combined 50-odd questions that were thrown at the representatives of the Indian and South African teams at the two pressers following the match. Not one of them had the ‘C’ word in it. So was it just a case of everyone being kind to the South Africans? Or have the Proteas’ premature exit in world events become so inevitable that the cricket world has moved on from using the ‘Chokers’ tag? Perhaps it was both. But this wasn’t so much a choke really. They didn’t even come close this time. They pressed the self-destruct button so long before that it seemed like they didn’t want to put their fans through heartache yet again. It was like watching a veteran artist walk on to the big stage and forget his lines. This was the No.1 ranked team in the world walking in for a do-or-die encounter in a big event, and it froze.
This is not to take any credit away from how well the Indian fast bowlers bowled with the new-ball or how the spinners then came back to put on the choke. But you could tell from the way two of the most free-flowing openers in world cricket, Quentin de Kock and Hashim Amla, started — tentatively and almost like they were too worried about putting a foot wrong — that this was a South African that was carrying a lot of baggage, like they were thinking more about not losing rather than winning. Ironically, even a win here wouldn’t have quite dispelled the notion. This wasn’t even the knockout stage, technically.
And AB de Villiers did try to give it some perspective saying just that, calling it a must-win match in the pool stages. It sounded more like an attempt in vain to ensure that this loss too doesn’t get counted in that long list of South African collapses.
De Kock wasn’t the only one to blame of course, because without his 53 South Africa wouldn’t even have managed the 191 that they finally ended up with. But while Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Jasprit Bumrah did keep him in check, it was surprising to see de Kock not attempt a single aerial shot. Nor did he even try once to put the Indian fast bowlers off their lines and lengths as he otherwise does by moving around in his crease. It was the same against the spinners. He attempted the reverse-sweep once against Ravindra Jadeja and was then bowled off the next ball. Amla’s case was the same, and it looked like he’d cracked it when he walked across and whipped Hardik Pandya over deep square-leg. But that was it. Then came the flurry of run-outs, each more ludicrous than the other.
Not a ‘mental thing’
Though the choke wasn’t mentioned, an ashen-faced de Villiers was understandably asked to explain the umpteenth failure. So were Faf du Plessis and coach Russell Domingo. And all three failed to come up with any reasonable explanation for why they were reduced to being in this position all over again. Domingo called it the “worst match we’ve played all year” while du Plessis kept talking about how South Africa “didn’t play like a No.1 ranked team throughout the tournament and didn’t deserve to make it to the semifinals”.
De Villiers, as captain, had to take the majority of the flak. While he did keep his composure — something he’d asked of his players the previous day on the field — through his press conference, he too seemed lost for words when asked repeatedly about the one albatross that the Proteas simply cannot get rid of from around their necks. But despite revealing that the South Africans had even tried psychologists and other ways to get over their demons in special camps organized for this very purpose, he didn’t attribute the loss to a “mental thing”.
“We do come up short for some reason in tournaments like this, and it is pretty sad. I can’t explain to you exactly what happens. I think you saw it out there today. Just a very poor batting performance. Nothing to do with the energy or the intensity or the belief in the team. We came here to win the game of cricket. And then we just unravelled as a side out there,” he said.
When asked whether this defeat in particular had made their collective dream of World Cup glory seem all that bleaker, de Villiers tried his best to sound convincing about how he thought his team was closer than ever before, even if nobody believed him. Du Plessis though was more guarded, and perhaps summed up South African cricket’s cluelessness about why their ICC campaigns always end in such heartbreak. When asked whether his team had put too much pressure on themselves to get rid of the voodoo, he said, “I would like to go to the future and ask the South African team that actually wins a trophy about how they did it.”