Another World Cup, another implosion. South Africa were never genuine contenders this time, but they have fallen so far short of expectations that the anguished introspection could be even more intense than in the past.
But even that coldest of comforts will be denied them for now. Told his team could reach the semi-finals if they win all three of their remaining games and are done all sorts favours by the results of other matches, that it wasn’t over, Faf du Plessis cracked a rueful smile, and said, “Isn’t it?”
No, skipper, it isn’t. First, South Africa will have to front up to Pakistan at Lord’s on Sunday, then Sri Lanka at Chester-le-Street next Friday and Australia at Old Trafford the following Saturday.
Pakistan are a proud team who have, like South Africa, won only one game. But that success was achieved against England — which will only fuel their belief that they can beat anyone, especially a sorry South Africa side all out of reasons to go once more unto the breach.
The Sri Lankans are comfortably among the weakest teams at the tournament, and could easily limp home having beaten only Afghanistan. So grabbing a consolation win over a disinterested South Africa looms as suddenly attainable.
And after all, will come the most difficult assignment of them all. South Africa’s games against Australia are clashes of cultures and egos that involve often viscerally expressed differences of opinion of how cricket should be played and how cricketers should conduct themselves on and off the field. They are ugly mongrels fighting over their mother’s only available teat.
If the Aussies need to beat South Africa in what will be the last match of the league round to make it into the final four, expect a series of shocking confrontations that could make Sandpapergate look like a squabble in a kindergarten playground.
Only then will du Plessis and his players, and the coaching staff, be free to exhale and consider their immediate past, their present and their future, both near and far. Some of them have already said they’re on their bikes. Imran Tahir, cricket’s youngest 40-year-old, and JP Duminy will henceforth be available for T20 Internationals only. How much do Hashim Amla and Dale Steyn have left in the tank? Du Plessis himself will surely take a long, hard look at whether he wants to continue — both as captain and as a player.
Ottis Gibson is, no doubt, out there. South Africa’s board appointed him to win the World Cup, and outdid their own crassness by telling him he would be fired if he didn’t. His contract runs until September. He shouldn’t expect a renewal. By the look of him at Edgbaston on Wednesday after New Zealand had beaten his team in the World Cup’s first white-knuckle clash, he doesn’t.
Mohammad Moosajee, the team’s doctor since 2003 and their manager since 2008, is also about to bow out, taking with him the utmost respect of the players. Linda Zondi, who has proved himself a canny and brave selection convenor, is also at the end of his tenure but could yet be retained in a reshaping of the position.
If there’s nothing else South Africa achieve from their remaining World Cup games, they could give Duminy the three caps he needs to retire with 200. Yes, it’s come to that.
How different might South Africa’s team and support staff be mere months from now? Different enough that the notion of Rassie van der Dussen as du Plessis’ successor has become more credible with every passing match. Van der Dussen is 30 and has played 110 first-class matches and 103 List A games. But he only has 15 one-day internationals and seven of the T20 variety to his name — and let’s not forget that he wouldn’t have been at this World Cup had AB de Villiers not retired.
He is already a better captain though — going on his unhurried, thoughtful, clear-minded, serious responses in press conferences — than de Villiers, at least, ever was, and even in the depths of South Africa’s sorry showing at this tournament his grit at the crease has been impressively obvious.
That’s if he wants the job. Du Plessis is the best captain in the game, regardless of what Virat Kohli’s or Eoin Morgan’s campaigners have to say on the question. And if even he can’t get this lot to straighten up and fly right, or at least to play to their potential, who can?
Similarly, which coach will want to take on the job of not only turning apparently inveterate losers, at least at tournament time, into a team that believes in itself but also of having to put up with some of the most bumptious, interfering, ignorant administrators in all of sport?
There is an awful deja vu to South Africa’s performance whenever there’s a trophy on the line, a thudding certainty that they will get wrong what they otherwise get right. Their batting will lose its rigour, their bowling will dissolve into a mess of runs, their fielding will become a joke, their thinking will leap tall buildings, never to be seen again.
Except that, somehow, everything will be as it should be in their next bilateral series. That may not be the case this time: South Africa’s next engagement is in India in September and October. They will struggle to be competitive in the Tests and perhaps entirely.
But, at some point, they will come right. Until the next World whatever, of course, when the same old ghosts will swirl and skirl and scare once more.
You want answers for why that happens? You want to know how a good team becomes bad? You wonder if some kind of occult otherness is at play?
South Africans have asked themselves those questions, and many more, for too many years. And the closest some of us can get to an answer is that South Africa expect to do badly in tournaments because, well, that’s just what South Africans do.
It’s a tradition. Live with it.