What Will It Take for South Africa to Lift the World Cup Curse?

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What Will It Take for South Africa to Lift the World Cup Curse?

Illustration: Ahmed Sikander

Confusing and draining: That sums up the experience of being a fan of South Africa’s cricket team in 2019. Things weren’t always this way. In 1992, it was heartbreaking when the rains determined the result for South Africa against England in the World Cup semi-final. We were grief-stricken in 1999 when they came so close to a place in the final before Allan Donald got run out against Australia. When the players broke down on the field and cried after the loss in the semi-final of the 2015 World Cup, we sobbed with them. But this time, the tears did not flow.

Over the years and with each passing World Cup, a feeling of disbelief has increasingly replaced the feeling of sadness. South Africa has always been a side cricket fans would love to see lift the World Cup, because every true sports fan loves a good underdog story. With a host of unbelievably skilled players in their squad, South Africa have always looked like the dark horse. Every edition would have fans secretly thinking “We shall overcome.” Unfortunately, it’s a movie you have watched many times over, knowing how drearily it would end and hoping otherwise.

You’d think a country that has produced cricket geniuses like Allan Donald, Jacques Kallis, Graeme Smith, Jonty Rhodes, Gary Kirsten, AB de Villiers, Dale Steyn, Shaun Pollock, and Mark Boucher – to name just a few – would have at least one World Cup trophy in their cabinet. It’s one of the biggest mysteries in world cricket. How can a country that boasts of some of the most astounding talents in the world not be able to win a single World cup in all these years?

“To put a finger on why this is the case is difficult to say. It’s something that’s maybe passed on from generation to generation. The new cricketers do not deserve the baggage, but it is a baggage they carry because every time we go to an ICC tournament, it’s brought up in the media,” says Eric Simons, a former South Africa cricketer and coach.

Today, South Africa’s World Cup “curse” is something every youngster coming in with dreams in his eyes, just has to deal with and accept.

When something is repeated over and over again, it starts gaining credence. Today, South Africa’s World Cup “curse” is something every youngster coming in with dreams in his eyes, just has to deal with and accept. Maybe it has even become a part of the country’s sporting psyche that cannot be shaken off, no matter what happens. The sensitivity regarding the infamous C-word that former players display is proof that the historical baggage is weighing down the South African team.

“Is ‘choker’ the right term to use? I think there have been games where the way it has unfolded you could use the term, in other tournaments it’s just been underperforming based on our ability and strength… We have underperformed, and if you look at it in isolation you’d find a reason why in each case,” says Simons, who has been working with the South Africa captain Faf du Plessis in the Indian Premier League for the last two years.

As for the skipper himself, the run-up to the tournament seemed auspicious. The players went camping together and spent time bonding before the rigours would set in. The captain was looking for a change in the team’s mind-set. “I’m no longer desperate; I want to win cricket games but I don’t need to win them. I think as a team, hopefully that can filter through… And if players are a little bit more free, and can just play as the best version of themselves, then that’s great. That’s all I’m looking for,” said du Plessis before the start of the World Cup. Halfway through the tournament, the efficacy of those methods has been proved dubious.

Confusing and draining: That sums up the experience of being a fan of South Africa’s cricket team in 2019.

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Could it then be a lack of competency rather than a curse? For many players, this is their last World Cup. Imran Tahir and JP Duminy have called it quits, there are considerable doubts over Hashim Amla and du Plessis continuing for another four years. An experienced leader of the pace attack was missing in Dale Steyn although Kagiso Rabada has been impressive. The AB de Villiers drama would not have helped the team either. There is a tiny group of youngsters in the squad now around whom the team for the next World Cup needs to be built. However, many observers and former cricketers feel that the cricket community in the country must take ownership, and it’s not just the responsibility of the men who are at the World Cup. The domestic system is failing and somehow the competitions aren’t developing the mental toughness that is required for winning under pressure.

It’s a tough puzzle to crack. Didn’t this very team beat Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Australia, and Zimbabwe over the last 12 months? Backing a side is an emotional investment and defending the South African cricket team is possibly the most challenging role in sports. What’s clear is that 2019 will join all of South Africa’s other failed campaigns in the annals of history. They can only hope that 2023 will bring better fortunes. After all, when you’ve hit rock bottom, the only way is up.

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