Rain, a peg for South Africa to hang its frustrations

THE rain that preserves the most unspoilt of our continents ruined South Africa's World Cup again.


South Africa's greatest fast bowler Allan Donald was struggling to come to terms with himself.-Pics. V. V. KRISHNAN

THE rain that preserves the most unspoilt of our continents ruined South Africa's World Cup again. What it giveth with one hand, they say here, it taketh with another and there was a chilling feeling of deja vu as the television cameras moved to the scoreboard. It was on a similar electronic board at the Sydney Cricket Ground that the romance of South Africa's return to world cricket crumbled. Now, like then, a nation stood transfixed as every drop of the Durban south-westerly seemed to tighten the noose around their aspirations. It was cruel, but cruelty is as much part of sport as valour.

But when South Africa dusts itself for a post-mortem it will realise that the rain was merely providing them with a peg to hang their frustrations on. It was a sweetener that hid the bitter pill. The truth is that South Africa weren't good enough and not a soul in the world would have been bold enough to have said that when the tournament began.

There were cricketing reasons; the demise of the giant Allan Donald and the void it left in the bowling, the injury and subsequent dilution of the role of Jacques Kallis, the early exit of Jonty Rhodes. But the more crucial factors lay beyond South Africa's fine cricket grounds, they had their genesis in the years of isolation and the need to prove themselves to the outside world.

To South Africa, quite appropriately a forgotten land mass during the apartheid years, winning at sport is an expression of their ability, there is an urge to make up for all those years when they were denied international competition. This World Cup was the big opportunity to showcase their organisational skill and their sporting prowess. And therefore winning was no longer the logical end to a series of good performances but an end to be achieved at all cost. When you put the end before the journey, the path often vanishes.

South Africa seemed to come into the World Cup far too tense. The expectation in the country was enormous and it hinted of arrogance. So overwhelming was this force, so unimaginable was defeat that I suspect the fear of losing overcame the joy of merely playing well. South African cricket has never resembled a flowering of happiness but in this World Cup the burden of winning seemed to take the smile out of their cricket. They missed the celebration that Jonty Rhodes brought to the game, they didn't have the laughing eyes of Allan Donald. Instead they had strong, defiant men, Kallis, Klusener, Gibbs, who looked like navy seals about to embark on a mission.

Yet, they came close and that is because they play very good cricket. A ball and a run away from qualification isn't too bad; what was bad was not knowing the target under the Duckworth-Lewis system. It has long been known to the world that cares to know, that the numbers in the D/L tables represent par scores, not victory targets. When the team was told the magic number of 229, they should have realised that to win the game they needed to score one more. But sportsmen are strange species. The deep thought that goes into the polishing of their game is rarely matched by a desire to look beyond. The study of numbers is for the nerds, that lowly species, while the real action is for virile men. Pity about that because a nerd would have won South Africa a place in the super six.

It would be easy to transfer the blame to the D/L system. It would also be sad and defeatist. The system has been around for so long now that any cricketer who says he doesn't understand it is being careless. It isn't a foolproof system but once it has been adopted, it is the duty of every cricketer to know how it works. As we have learnt once more from the Shane Warne affair, ignorance of the law is no excuse.

The rapid descent of South Africa, and the World Cup will be much poorer without them, was only matched by the return of sheer delight in Sachin Tendulkar's batting. Tendulkar, like no one else in the game today bar Warne, is a vehicle of joy not merely a carriage to the destination. It is the ride that we revel in and often it does not matter where it takes us. To watch Tendulkar in flight is to be transported to another world; of skill, of chivalry, of valour. He was born to dominate, to put fear into the heart of the bowler running up, seemingly, to confront him; not to glide and to nudge. The lion doesn't peck at morsels. Returning to number one, to a place that he always thought he belonged, is like returning Lata Mangeshkar's voice to her. The other Tendulkar still averaged 60 in Test cricket and 38 in one-day internationals, that is the greatness that lies in him, but the bowler approached him with hope not trepidation.

Now he is back to what he does best. He is swimming in his own pool and the world is by his feet again. India have won matches at the World Cup, not just because Tendulkar has scored runs, but because he has taken the bowling apart, because he has appropriated the opponent's confidence. That is what the genuinely great competitors do. He has made his point.

Now he must take India further. But the question here in South Africa is not how far India will go but who among those left standing, will stop Australia. Astonishingly, the two teams best equipped to do so, South Africa by their industry and Pakistan by their wild passion, have fallen away. Sri Lanka might do so if only they can find a humid day and a slow surface. Their only challenge on the horizon is a little giant who, in this form, can lay claim to being the very best the game has seen.