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The hype, optimism, happiness, and pain of South Africa

A 34-year-old man revered for his perseverance rather than his athleticism flies through the air with seeming ease. When he gets both hands on the ball, he is horizontal, and he hangs on as he crashes to the ground like a windmill destroyed by lightning in a Free State cornfield.

In the muggy soup of a Kolkata night, a 23-year-old tests his tremendous physical and mental limitations by bowling eight consecutive overs. He knows he needs to because the core of the attack is popping pain relievers for a bruised heel that will cost him four overs. It’s difficult to tell how much of the dampness that has soaked him is perspiration and how much is tears by the end of the game.

Who are these individuals, and where did they come from? Rassie van Dussen and Gerald Coetzee are the oldest and youngest members of South Africa’s World Cup squad, respectively. But that doesn’t tell the whole narrative of where they come from, which is a mix of hype, optimism, happiness, and hurt.

You only had to witness Van der Dussen underarm the ball in the approximate direction of the umpire after he took the catch, in the covers, to remove Mitchell Marsh for a six-ball duck to know this deep in your South African bones. It was the eighth over of Australia’s chase following a 213-run target to win the semifinal at Eden Gardens on Thursday, or when South Africa still had a chance to go to the final against India in Ahmedabad on Sunday.

Van der Dussen’s furious heave towards the non-striker’s end sparkled with all the excitement, hope, happiness, and hurt we carry in our hearts. Even 8,000 kilometers away in India, across the equator. It was a lovely thing.

As the game slipped away from the South Africans, you could see the same emotions in Coetzee’s changing expressions. He moved from being a firebrand to being fiery, vulnerable, and finally finished. Coetzee knew what it meant to play for this side by the time he vanished into David Miller’s arms after Australia’s three-wicket win with 16 balls to spare. And what it will imply when he reaches the age of Van der Dussen.

David Miller, 33, is a stalwart of this inside and outside battle. He has competed in seven World Cups in both white-ball formats over the course of more than nine years, with none of his attempts being successful. So Miller understood the excitement, hope, and delight that came with not only South Africa’s only second-innings century in the tournament, but also their only ton in five World Cup semi-finals. Despite his 116-ball 101 after being called to the crease in the 12th over, he also understood the agony of finishing on the wrong side of the equation. Miller has batted earlier only six times in his 147 innings under the format.

“‘Quinny’ mentioned, with his four hundreds, that he wouldn’t mind if he didn’t score any runs and we win the trophy,” Miller told the media. “It’s the same thing every time. You wanted to make it to the final and compete for the trophy, but it wasn’t to be. But I’m glad we stuck with it and put up a total that we all thought was defendable.”

It wasn’t, and South Africa’s chance to win the World Cup – they narrowly escaped needing to qualify for the tournament and were not regarded as a serious danger – was lost. They won seven of their nine league games, but they lost six of their seven World Cup knockout games on Thursday.

“It’s not a great feeling; it’s a bit hollow,” Miller admitted. “It’s been a fantastic campaign.” The squad has been steady throughout, and individuals have risen to the occasion and performed admirably. We’ve fought as a team, so losing is part of the game… yet it’s extremely disappointing.

“We discussed having amazing recollections before the tournament. A career in cricket might be fleeting, therefore we must relish the trip. I believe we did. Off the field, we checked a lot of boxes and had some fantastic memories and moments. We can look back and say it was a terrific time, but losing the semifinal doesn’t help. But the men had a lot of spirit, and they should be proud of themselves.”

South Africa’s surprising loss to the Netherlands in Dharamsala in their third game, after beating Sri Lanka in Delhi and Australia – yes, Australia – in Lucknow, was one of the subplots. They shambled to 89/5 on their way to 207 all out while chasing 246.

“I said to ‘Klaasie’ [fellow middle order marauder Heinrich Klaasen], ‘The guys are batting really well up front, and we need to keep training with the new ball because it’s going to come to a stage where we’re going to be in a bit of dwang,” Miller recalled of Thursday’s game. So just stay focused.’ And we were 30/4 in the next game against the Netherlands.

“Today, it was more a case of Australia bowling really well in the powerplay [when South Africa was restricted to 18/2].” Anchoring the innings, I felt compelled to hit fours and sixes the entire time. But I absorbed a lot of strain. At the time, it was more about the partnership [of 95 with Klaasen]. In a semifinal, every run counts, so we wanted to salvage some type of total.”

Another subplot was Temba Bavuma’s fitness, as he entered the match with a hamstring issue, providing an opportunity for his horde of detractors to express their rage ineffectively on social media. Bavuma scored 145 runs at an average of 18.12 in eight innings at the World Cup, although he entered the competition as South Africa’s top batsman this year, with 637 runs at an average of 79.62 in 10 innings. That’s in addition to his role as captain.

“I told him how proud I am of him,” Rob Walter remarked minutes after his post-match meeting with Bavuma on the field. “He marshaled the troops incredible well to bring the [semifinal] close.” The way he functioned strategically, with the senior heads surrounding him on the field, creating different pressures through field placements, was a tremendous effort to try to defend that score.

“Aside from that, it’s difficult to walk through a tournament when you’re not delivering but the batters around you are.” He was the driving force behind our entry into this event in the first place. People tend to forget this. So I wanted to make sure he understood how valuable he is to this squad and how proud I am of his efforts and leadership throughout the tournament.”

“He wasn’t 100% [fit on Thursday], but the leader that he is, he’s really stood up since he’s been captain and taken our one-day cricket to another level,” Miller agreed. He’s done exceptionally well, as seen by his performances. He didn’t get the runs he desired, but having the leader there is usually beneficial. Everyone gravitated towards it, and we were drawn in. He was fit to play in our opinion, and he did an excellent job.”

Miller is one of nine members of the 2023 squad who are unlikely to compete in South Africa’s World Cup in 2027. What are the next stages for South Africa?

“We’re on the right track,” stated Miller. “There’s been a lot of emphasis and focus on nailing the big moments.” We’ve approached it correctly by focusing on each game individually and not looking too far ahead. South Africa is always looking for people that are fighting for a worthy cause and putting up a decent fight. That’s what we excelled at. That paves the way for the lads’ future.”

South Africa’s ancient touchstones of hype, hope, happiness, and hurt will be there along the way. They’ll want the last one to be the smallest and smoothest, and who can blame them?


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