South Africa. Australia. We really are made for each other.
The South Africans have always made their presence felt at cricket’s premier event – the 50 over World Cup.
Right from their inaugural tournament in Australia way back in 1992, the team from the Rainbow Nation has seldom failed to make an impact at the quadrennial event.
In their first outing itself they made it all the way to the semi-final stage only to lose out to England on a ridiculous rain rule in play at the time. In their second quest for glory in 1996, in the sub-continent, they made it to the quarter-final stage before being single-handedly demolished by a regal Brian Lara who played the innings of the tournament for the West Indies.
They were the odds-on favourites to lift the trophy in 1999, with possibly the strongest team that they have ever put out on the park, and with a rampaging Lance Klusener threatening to take them to the coveted land all on his own. Alas, it wasn’t to be ‘third time lucky’, as an agonising tie in the semifinal to Australia saw them exit the tournament by virtue of their loss to the same opponents in the super-six stage.
It was the day the tag of ‘chokers’ got attached to this super-talented outfit and they bear until this day.
As hosts in 2003, the Proteas would have believed that their time had finally arrived to sit atop the mountain. With home advantage on their side (even though no host nation had so far won the cup) and a plethora of all-rounders in their ranks, this team was expected to go all the way but astonishingly failed to even make it past the first hurdle.
It went on to be their earliest exit at the World Cup.
The 2007 edition saw the men from the African continent move strongly and confidently into the semi-final, almost completely going under the radar with the focus squarely revolving around the huge upsets in the tournament- with heavyweights India and Pakistan being knocked out of the World Cup by underdogs Bangladesh and Ireland respectively at the group stage – and the event itself being mired in gloom and controversy with the death of Pakistan coach – the former South African coach as well – Bob Woolmer during the event.
However, their campaign would end here at the hands of an all-conquering, undefeated reigning world champions Australia, with Glenn McGrath and Shaun Tait scything through their batting like a knife through butter.
The World Cup returned to the sub-continent for the 2011 edition where hosts India were on a mission to win the trophy for their legendary batsman Sachin Tendulkar playing in his last ever World Cup. The maestro himself led the charge for them rattling up a century against England before notching up another sublime ton against the Proteas.
The men in green and yellow, however, had the last laugh with Robin Peterson sealing a win for them off the last ball of the match. The South Africans bossed the group stages and were once again hot favourites to win the title, marching confidently into the quarter-finals.
Here they came up against a New Zealand team that they were easily expected to defeat, but in a rather easy run chase, they inexplicably lost their last eight wickets for 64 runs to lose the match by 49 runs and exit another tournament without any silverware.
The Graeme Smith-led team in 2011 were once again favourites to lift the trophy but again fell short.
The 2015 event marked the second occasion that the tournament was being held Down Under, once again jointly by Australia and their trans-Tasman neighbour New Zealand. It was also the place where The South Africans had emphatically announced their return to international cricket and as a force to be reckoned with.
The Africans were in prime form coming into the tournament, having just demolished the West Indies in an ODI series with skipper AB de Villiers being crowned the new holder for the fastest one-day century, a mere 31 balls to achieve the feat against the Caribbeans.
They made their way to the semi-finals with a couple of hiccups along the way, losing the big matches to India and Pakistan, but seemed to be hitting their straps at the right time.
In the semi-final, they were up against the team that had knocked them out of the previous World Cup – the hosts and red-hot team of the tournament – New Zealand. The Proteas would have been keen to avenge that defeat, but more importantly were looking to get past their last hurdle en route to their first final of the showpiece event.
Having fallen in the penultimate match on each of the previous three occasions, they had made the last four. The Black Caps themselves were on a similar quest of making their first championship match, having fared even worse than the Proteas, losing seven times at this stage in as many attempts.
De Villiers and his team batted well to notch up 281 in their rain-interrupted innings. With a revised target of 298 to chase down in a high-pressure match combined with their potent bowling arsenal, South Africa appeared to be in the driver’s seat. But once again they caved in the face of mounting pressure. First, Brendon McCullum’s blitzkrieg and then Grant Elliott’s composure got The Men In Black over the line to break South Africa’s hearts once again.
The much-vaunted contenders ‘choked’ once again and ended yet another campaign in agony.
The South Africans head into this World Cup once again as a serious threat but in the light of the retirement of their greatest one-day player De Villiers, they will have to find inspiration elsewhere. The onus will be on their tough-as-nails captain Faf du Plessis and young bowling sensation Kagiso Rabada to lead the charge for them as they make yet another attempt – their eighth – at capturing the coveted title.
The Holy Grail has eluded them thus far, but will this be the time that the Proteas finally get their hands on the most cherished prize in world cricket?