Tense South Africa can't heal its World Cup heartache
The wheels normally come off for South Africa near the end of the Cricket World Cup. This one's been broken from the start.
South Africa is heading for another World Cup failure, but not like previous campaigns where the four-time semifinalist careered off track with the finish line in sight and earned some sympathy for its efforts.
This time, South Africa is bumbling toward early elimination. Players of the caliber of Dale Steyn, Hashim Amla and captain Faf du Plessis are possibly leaving for one-day international retirement with a bitter final taste of the World Cup. Actually, bitter is all they've ever tasted at the World Cup.
"I can't speak of past World Cups but certainly in this World Cup it seems like guys have been sort of hampered," coach Ottis Gibson said. "That's probably the only word that comes to mind at the moment."
Gibson's comments after the last-over loss to New Zealand on Wednesday summed up South Africa's World Cup situation for the last 20 years.
Past World Cup failures are nearly always mentioned in the same sentence as the present tournament. And it's a struggle, even for the coach, to figure out why South Africa can't get it right.
Gibson's use of the word "hampered" indicated what others have long suspected — a mental block and not a question of talent.
"I need to sit down and work it out," he said.
He wouldn't be the first to try.
True, the Proteas weren't on the top rung of favorites this year. But they shouldn't have slipped this low. South Africa won five straight ODI series before the World Cup and not that long ago swept defending world champion Australia 5-0 in a series.
Possible reasons for the 2019 tournament problems have been put forward: The batsmen clearly haven't made enough runs, leaving the bowlers with an unfair burden. The preparations have been questioned, with no prolonged World Cup camp planned. Injuries played some part. Maybe fatigue too.
But South Africa isn't the only team with players facing a packed schedule.
The AB de Villiers issue added an unwelcome distraction when news broke during the World Cup that the superstar batsman indicated at the last minute that he wanted to come out of retirement to play and was refused.
But teams have dealt with unexpected issues before, and World Cups rarely run perfectly for anyone.
What's left is what Gibson was trying to grasp: Why is South Africa always so tense at the World Cup?
"To see, when we come to this stage, guys go into their shell a bit, is a little bit surprising to be honest," Gibson said.
South African fans and media at home, often seething at the letdowns, also want to know why.
Probably, it's simply the result of a vicious cycle. Failure brings pressure which can hamper performance which can lead to more failure. And even more pressure.
In an indication of the burden felt by South African teams in the buildup to World Cups, it was rumored that cricket bosses called a meeting to ask journalists to tone down their scrutiny of the team ahead of this event.
The burden gets even heavier now.
Steyn and Amla will likely retire from ODIs, joining JP Duminy and Imran Tahir who have already said they will give up after the World Cup. Du Plessis, a strong force in the team, might retire from one-dayers, or at least relinquish the captaincy to start the preparations for 2023. Du Plessis said as many as six or seven players are on their way out.
Young players like fast bowlers Kagiso Rabada and Lungi Ngidi, allrounder Andile Phehlukwayo, and batsman Aiden Markram are left.
Gibson said before the tournament that the good news for South Africa was that those new players weren't affected by World Cup failures.
They likely are now.
So how will they respond? South Africa must again try to break the cycle with a new generation.
Lance Klusener was the flashing allrounder who lit up South Africa's World Cup the last time it was held in England 20 years ago. But he was also partly to blame for its calamitous exit in the semifinals.
Klusener dealt with the disappointment in an intriguing way.
He and Allan Donald were involved in the runout that saw South Africa crash out after a tie with Australia in one of the most scintillating finishes to a Cricket World Cup game, and a moment that's right up there with the most painful — even unwatchable — sporting moments for South Africans.
"Nobody died," Klusener said in the aftermath, adding it was just a game. Klusener left it behind the moment he walked off the field. No mental baggage.
It was a hugely unpopular opinion within the team at the time. Maybe a small amount of the sentiment should be taken on board now and in the future.