One of the biggest mysteries of modern cricket has been South Africa's tendency to choke at the biggest World Cup moments. While they were unlucky to miss the first four editions of the tournament due to the apartheid-related boycott, they have subsequently pressed the self-destruct button too many times for their own good.
It all began with a bit of rain...
South Africa played their maiden World Cup game in 1992. They thrashed world champions Australia on their own turf by 9 wickets in that match. Captain Kepler Wessels led from the front playing a man-of-the-match innings of 81 not out. Alan Donald took a crucial three wickets.
Australia never recovered and failed to reach the semis. South Africa went from strength to strength beating eventual champions Pakistan in the round robin stage. Their last match was a must-win one with India. They sailed through comfortably by 6 wickets.
World Cup 2011: Dhoni has to find his Midas touch
In the semi-final with England, they needed a very gettable 22 runs off 13 balls with 4 wickets in hand. Then rain came and the revised target became an impossible 22 runs off 1 ball. The incredible look on 5 down batsman Brian McMillan said it all.
This was thanks to the ridiculous "highest scoring overs" rule that the ICC had implemented.
Here's giving you an idea about the silly rule:
Let's say Team A scores 220 runs in 50 overs and plays out 10 maiden overs. Then if 10 overs are lost due to rain, the 10 lowest scoring overs, which happen to be maidens, would be removed from the equation. The target would remain 220, but in 40 overs! Imagine being punished for bowling 10 maidens!
And you thought Duckworth-Lewis was bad!
South Africa put the debacle behind them in the 1996 WC and won all five matches comfortably in the group stage. They took on the West Indies, a team in decline, in the quarter-finals. In that match they gave their first glimpse of their choking abilities. They were a comfortable 186-3 chasing 265 for victory.
They lost their next 4 wickets for 12 runs, eventually ending up 19 runs behind the Windies.
The Cup they should have won...
But the cup they totally lost the plot was the 1999 one. South Africa looked the best team of the tournament and topped the group quite comfortably. The other group topper was Pakistan. Australia was tied on points with New Zealand and Windies, but just managed to go forward on the basis of their superior run rate.
In the Super Six stage, South Africa and Australia won all their matches and met in the last match. Some commentators had already started calling that the final. South Africa posted a healthy 271 and had Australia in a bit of bother at 48-3. When Steve Waugh gave a catch to centurion Herschelle Gibbs, it all seemed over. But Gibbs dropped it and Waugh went on to score a match-winning century.
That meant that if the two teams would tie in the semis, then Australia would go forward. Funnily, that is exactly what happened! After tying the match, the Proteas needed just 1 run off 3 balls with 1 wicket in hand.
Now if a tail-ender was taking guard, then one could understand a loss. But on strike was Player of the Tournament (281 runs and 17 wickets) Lance Klusener, 31 not out. With the form he was in, he just needed to connect in any one of the three balls. But he committed hara-kiri by running for a non-existent run on the very first ball!
The best team of the tournament didn't reach the final.
Clueless in the rain...
The 2003 WC got even more bizarre with another self-inflicted tie! In a rain-hit match with Sri Lanka, the Duckworth-Lewis par score was 229 for 45 overs. Klusener (yet again) took a single and Mark Boucher hit a six to touch 229 off 44.5 overs. The last ball was defended and the Proteas celebrated only to learn later they had to be +1 of the par score!
India series was a good preparation for WC: van Wyk
So they failed to make the semis thanks to this faux pas.
The last-ball defence probably haunted Boucher for life.
In 2007, they didn't choke. They simply crashed: 149 all down against Australia in the semis.
What more can one say?
South African fans must be a worried lot for 2011.
With every successive WC, the Proteas burden just gets heavier and heavier.
The author is a Bangalore-based journalist and blogger.