Dark cloud over rainbow nation
Harare – On 24 June, South Africa marked 18 years to the day Nelson Mandela walked into Ellis Park Stadium, a fortress of apartheid and inspired the Springboks to World Cup glory in one of the most iconic moments in sporting history.
A year later, Bafana Bafana were crowned African champions on home soil.
But 18 years after Madiba’s magical sporting moment, there are signs that South Africa’s journey back to those heady days of success might be a long and exhaustive one.
Just this month alone, the Proteas choked again, at a major International Cricket Council tournament after a sensational batting collapse in England saw them lose their semi-final showdown against the hosts in the Champions Trophy.
Then, the Baby Boks choked, too, after surrendering a six-point lead, with just two minutes left on the clock, to lose their IRB Junior World Cup semi-final to Wales and in the process, end their one-year reign as champions.
With Mandela ailing in a South African hospital, the 18th anniversary of his triumphant march into Ellis Park, which inspired a team and helped heal the wounds of a nation deeply divided along racial lines, were understandably muted.
But his powerful legacy, especially in the month when he made his biggest contribution to his country’s sport with that alliance with the Springboks on their way to World Cup success, should have driven his nation forward.
However, it has been a depressing June for South African sport.
Two weeks ago, Bafana Bafana were knocked out of the race for the 2014 World Cup finals, after a 1-2 loss at the hands of Ethiopia saw them drifting five points away from their opponents with only a game to play.
Fate threw Bafana Bafana a lifeline when it soon emerged that Ethiopia had used an ineligible player, in their earlier match against Botswana which they won 2-1, and Fifa confirmed that the points they won in that contest were likely to be handed to the Zebras.
But while that opens a small window of opportunity for South Africa, ahead of the final World Cup qualifiers in September, the brutal reality of this is that the Ethiopians still have their fate in their hands. The East Africans still lead by two points, even after losing those three points, and all they need is just a draw, against the whipping boys of the group, Central African Republic, who have nothing but pride to play for, in the last fixture.
Even Bafana Bafana coach, Gordon Igesund does not appear that enthusiastic about the possibility of Ethiopia being docked three points.
“Fifa are taking action, but that's as much as we know,” Igesund told reporters on his return to Johannesburg from the failed mission in Ethiopia.
“Whatever that result is, it doesn't affect us unless they get docked points and we win the last game and they lose the last game.”
The Proteas have been on a good run in international cricket, where they lead the ICC Test rankings, but there was always concern that, at an international tournament, they were likely to choke.
And that proved the case in England when they were bowled out for just 175, in an ICC Champions Trophy semi-final at the Oval, and the hosts coasted to an easy seven-wicket victory with Jonathan Trott leading the way with a superb unbeaten 82.
That Trott would have been playing for the Proteas had he not decided to leave South Africa, after an education in Cape Town and playing for both Western province and SA Schools, and chosen to represent England at national level.
The absence of bowling pace spearhead, Dale Steyn, through injury, had a huge effect on the Proteas but if they were going to be bundled out for just 175, even the great Steyn would have found it difficult to help them defend such a small total.
“We need to be honest with ourselves. We did choke the game and it is a word we have become comfortable with,” coach Gary Kirsten, who leaves his job after this English tour to spend more time with his family, told journalists.
“It’s an uncomfortable word, but we have to become comfortable with it. We have to accept it. That’s what it is.
“England bowled exceptionally well, but that doesn’t mean that your batting line-up has to be 80/8. It’s a horrible word. It does get used and we are open and upfront about it as a team.
“It’s going to require some really tough individuals to overcome it. I don’t know if I’ve left the team in a better state. Certainly we haven’t improved. Maybe it’s a good decision I’m leaving.”
Why would a team that has two of the best ODI batsmen in the world, AB de Villiers and Hashim Amla, perform so miserably at the big stage and lose a semi-final so cheaply?
If you take away the incredible ninth wicket partnership of 95, more than half the runs scored by the entire team, between David Miller and Roro Kleinveldt, then you can see the real horrible picture of this South African collapse.
“You know, to be blown away with the bat with the quality of batsmen we’ve got in our batting line-up, I suppose, is very disappointing from that perspective,” said Kirsten.
“To have quality batsmen like that not being able to make a contribution, it’s disappointing.”
The Baby Boks can say precisely the same after they choked, too, in the closing minutes of their Junior World Cup Rugby semi-final against Wales and blew away a six-point lead to lose 17-18 in a pulsating tie.
With less than two minutes on the clock, the Baby Boks led comfortably 17-11 and looked set for the final to defend a title they won in Cape Town, after beating New Zealand, last year.
Right wing Ashley Evans crashed over, after collecting flyhalf Sam Davies' delicate chip, for the five-pointer that took Wales within just a point of the Baby Boks and then the conversion, under pressure, was superb and the victory was secured.
“We had our opportunities in the game, I think there was at least two tries that we could have scored,” South Africa coach, Dawie Theron said.
“I think, maybe, the guys were a little bit anxious in the moment. And, I must lift my hat to the Welsh. They really stuck to their kicking game – they had a very, very well prepared kicking game.”
Proteas choking history
•1992 Cricket World Cup – Lost to England in the semi-finals with 22 runs required off 1 ball
•1996 Cricket World Cup – Eliminated in the quarter-finals
•1999 Cricket World Cup – Knocked out by Australia in the semi-finals when Herschelle Gibbs dropped Steve Waugh, and Allan Donald was run out with one run required
•2000 ICC Knock Out tournament – Lost to India in the semi-finals
•2002 ICC Champions Trophy – Lost to India in the semi-finals
•2003 Cricket World Cup – Failed to progress beyond the group stage due to a misunderstanding of how many runs they needed to score in a rain-affected run chase
•2004 ICC Champions Trophy – Failed to progress beyond the group stage
•2006 ICC Champions Trophy – Lost to the West Indies in the semi-finals
•2007 ICC World Twenty20 – Failed to progress beyond the Super 8 stage
•2007 Cricket World Cup – Lost to Australia in the semifinals with their lowest ever score in a World Cup as Australia bowled them out for 149 and won by 7 wickets
•2009 ICC Champions Trophy – Finished last in their group and failed to progress to the knockout stages
•2009 ICC World Twenty20 – Lost in the semi-finals to Pakistan
•2010 ICC World Twenty20 – Failed to progress beyond the Super 8 stage
•2011 Cricket World Cup – Lost in the quarter final to New Zealand after suffering a dramatic collapse and losing eight wickets for 68 runs
•2012 ICC World Twenty20 – Failed to progress beyond the Super 8 stage