“All I can say is we’re not going to choke. We’re just going to play a good game of cricket tomorrow and come out on top. Simple,” came the rather confident words of our illustrious captain, AB De Villiers. A bold statement from the leader of a team who has endured countless knockout failures in cricket’s most prestigious tournament. Most fans approached Wednesday’s quarter-final with much more trepidation, especially given that the opponents were the experienced Sri Lanka, a team who have reached two consecutive World Cup finals.
Two of the greatest cricketers ever to grace the game with their presence were about to take the field in what could be their last ever ODI game. What could possibly go wrong for the Proteas? Well, usually in a do-or-die game, definitely something. Sangakkara and Jayawardene, tormentors of so many teams in the past, could not muster much (45 and 4 respectively) faced with the determined, aggressive Proteas: a team who sensed that this was their time. After 23 years of heartbreak, confusion and humiliating disaster, it seemed as though this group of talented individuals possessed what no other South African team had before—a mentality of winners.
I probably sound like the often berated sports minister, Mr Fikile Mbalula, with words like “bunch of winners”. But, perhaps there is significance in that mantra he keeps using. Since the 1992 World Cup, when rain harshly disrupted the budding Proteas’ amazing progress, South Africa have found unique and unusual methods to get themselves knocked out of cricket’s showpiece event. In 1996, they were torn apart by the magnificent Brian Lara. 1999 was possibly their most humiliating and painful exit: Allan Donald run out with their semi-final ending in a tie. In 2003, a misread Duckworth-Lewis calculation resulted in that ignominious group stage exit (at home). 2007 and 2011 were both varying but extremely poor performances against the current hosts—Australia and New Zealand. In the former, they were blown away by some masterful bowling leaving them reeling at 27 for 5 but in the latter, they really had no excuse for their disastrous inability to chase a mere 222 runs.
This time, however, a sense of belief exuded throughout the squad. They were well aware of how necessary this victory was, how essential it was that they pay back 23 years of pure, unadulterated support. Most fans had begun to lose hope, a loss of hope that was only exemplified by every missed opportunity at the knockout stages. The team had undoubtedly made South Africans proud with their numerous series victories and supreme brilliance in the test arena, however, it was the final piece that was still missing—that elusive World Cup trophy.
When the Proteas won so comprehensively on Wednesday, when they finally got that knockout game monkey off their backs, it is no exaggeration to say that a nation beamed with pride. Finally their team had achieved what they had always been capable of, finally, they had channelled their nervous energy into aggression and pure quality, resulting in a resounding, one-sided victory. As Quinton De Kock pumped the air in celebration of the winning runs, fans of the South African cricket team were finally able to enjoy the blissful feeling of having their team achieve knockout success.
Yes indeed, there is still a significant mountain to climb, namely the semis and hopefully, ultimately the final but the fact that South Africa have cleared the previously insurmountable hurdle speaks volumes. Two more games as perfect as that was and surely no one can stop South Africa from attaining the previously impossible dream. As De Villiers courageously stated, “I truly believe we’re going to go all the way,” and finally, based on Wednesday’s exquisite display, a nation can join him in that hope and firm belief that their national heroes can truly emerge as world champions.