It happens once in four years. South Africa arrives at the World Cup, full of hope and then the performances fluctuate. Once the Proteas wilt, the tear glands of their captains are tested in press conferences where some questions prove to be knives that cleave the soul.

In the 2011 edition, Graeme Smith turned up at the Mirpur’s Shere Bangla National Stadium’s media hall after his men suffered a 49-run loss in the quarterfinal against New Zealand. The word ‘chokers’ was bandied around and Smith’s eyes turned damp, it was heart-breaking. The dirge continued in 2015 and New Zealand rode on Grant Elliott’s unbeaten 84 to scale past South Africa’s tall score in the semifinal at Auckland’s Eden Park.

As it happened|  Pakistan beats South Africa

The worry-lined foreheads and quivering voices that combined to be the final curtain on South African aspirations in almost every World Cup since 1992, is overwhelmingly linked to one image that blends initial comedy with a tragic climax. Lance Klusener and Allan Donald run without a clue in the 1999 semifinal against Steve Waugh’s men at Birmingham’s Edgbaston. The stumps are thrown down, Klusener walks away in disgust, Donald’s shoulders slump and it is a picture that unerringly comes back to haunt.

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Downward spiral

Cut to the latest World Cup, and there is no avoiding the funeral air as Faf du Plessis and his men, crashed out following their loss to Pakistan at Lord’s on Sunday. With one victory in seven games and just two matches remaining, South Africa became the first premium unit to press the exit button. 

It may not come as a surprise considering a history of unfulfilled promises and a tendency to implode at the slightest hint of pressure but there is no denying the lingering sadness in the cricketing fraternity. The campaign had a terrible start as first-up there was the disruptive news about AB de Villiers pitching for a slot in the team. Rightly his plea was rejected as he had already retired and a squad was built to offset his absence.

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Nation in distress

The related chatter was distracting and then came Dale Steyn’s injured shoulder that ruled him out. Add to it Hashim Amla’s dwindling returns, a sharp contrast to his exalted standards and there was nothing sunny about the South Africans, except for leg-spinner Imran Tahir’s celebratory sprints after extracting a wicket.

A tired du Plessis spoke about the latest free-fall  “chipping away at him as a man”. There is pathos and back home, the tumult is evident. Ever since Cricket South Africa goaded by the government, implemented a transformation phase in which there were quotas based on race in provincial squads and even pushed for it at the national level, many players have snuggled into English counties or Twenty20 leagues. Even Kevin Pietersen sought glory in the England shade.

Having followed the accursed Apartheid, a racially discriminatory policy in the distant past, South Africa is trying to make up for its sins. Just that in sport, the emerging talent, be it White, Black, Cape Coloured or Indian, is struggling to wriggle through the quota-sieve. Some persist, others say ‘show me the money’ and a country lapses into distress.