South Africa and World Cups: An agonizing tale of heartbreaks

South African players looking in despair © Getty Images

“It is possibly going to be the last World Cup for some of our players. And it breaks our heart that we as youngsters couldn’t give the final to them and help them get that trophy that they’ve been working towards for almost – I don’t know, 15 years. It’s going to be a hard pill to swallow this one, especially just in the way we lost,” these were the words of a dejected South Africa skipper Sune Luus during the post-match press conference after the semi-final loss to England in the 2022 World Cup.

England routed South Africa by 137 runs at the Hagley Oval in Christchurch in the second semi-final and reopened old wounds. The wounds of the past, the wounds that defy treatment. The wounds that continue to bleed profusely and haunt every Protea who continues to visualise how her reflection would look like in the glistening World Cup trophy.

Many teams in the international circuit want to get their hands on that piece of silverware but arguably none more yearning than the Proteas.

So, when did this all start, and what led to such an infernal hoodoo?

2000 ODI World Cup semi-final

The Kim Price-led side made it to the semis off the back of an impressive display in the Group stage. They won four games as they defeated England, Netherlands, Sri Lanka, and Ireland. The Proteas were up against a highly formidable Australia in the semis and it wasn’t going to be easy. 

After losing the toss, South Africa were asked to set up a target and they did. But much less than what they were aiming for originally. Their top-seven players got into double digits but no one really managed to kick on and get a big one which saw them getting restricted to a meagre 180 in 50 overs.

With 181 runs to defend, South Africa needed their bowlers to rise to the occasion and make early inroads but none of that happened. The opening duo of skipper Belinda Clark and Lisa Keightely dismantled all the hopes of a South African comeback. They pummeled the bowlers and put on a 170-run stand which eventually sealed the deal for them.

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2014 ICC World T20 semi-final

Heather Knight and Sarah Taylor rejoice after beating South Africa in the semis of the ICC World T20 2014 in Bangladesh © Getty Images

After almost waiting for 14 long years, luck smiled on South Africa again as they made their way into the semi-finals of the ICC World T20 in Bangladesh in 2014. Having lost only to the mighty Aussies in the Group stage, the Mignon du Preez-led side was confident. But little did they know that another heartbreak was awaiting them. 

After being asked to bat again, the whole batting unit crumbled. Was it the wicket at the Shere Bangla National Stadium at Mirpur? Had it befriended the English side? Not really. It was again the case of a South African team succumbing to the magnitude of the event as they got folded for 101. In reply, England made a mockery of the run chase and won the game by nine wickets with 19 balls to spare.

2017 ODI World Cup semi-final

Doesn’t matter whether a team loses or wins, true fans always turn up in numbers to support their sides. And so did the South African supporters. They thronged into the County Ground in Bristol just to back their side which was taking on the hosts England for a place in the final. But what transpired on the day was perhaps the biggest heartbreak they have experienced till now. 

Electing to bat first, the team never really got going and could only manage 218 in 50 overs. Laura Wolvaardt and Mignon du Preez scored half-centuries to steady a ship that had lost its rudder. South Africa had finished nowhere close to where they wanted to be. But still, there was hope in the camp as they had a charismatic leader. 

Dane van Niekerk marshaled her troops on the field and tried to infuse them with plenty of optimism. And for the first time in their cricketing history, the Proteas looked like breaking the semi-final barrier. They picked up wickets at regular intervals and reduced England to 173 for six in 42.2 overs. But a forty-run stand between Jenny Gunn and Fran Wilson propelled England to 213. 

Dane van Niekerk after losing 2017 World Cup semi-final at the hands of England © Getty Images

And just when it was looking all gloomy and murky for the Proteas, Marizanne Kapp dismissed Wilson to give her side another beacon of hope. With three needed off the final over, the South African supporters looked at the heavens and folded their hands in prayer. Skipper van Niekerk tossed the ball to Shabnim Ismail.

That’s the thing with Ismail and her bowling, whenever she runs in the whole world stops and takes notice. She bowled a fuller delivery outside off to Gunn who drilled it in the air back towards Ismail and she failed to hold on. 

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Gunn grabbed a single on the next delivery and gave the strike to Laura Marsh. Ismail steamed in yet again bowled a good length ball on the off-stump channel and rattled Marsh’s woodwork. The fans started dancing in merriment and it looked as if South Africa were finally going to break the jinx.

But England’s number ten had other plans. Anya Shrubsole threaded the gap through point and ended South Africa’s hopes of securing a final berth yet again. But what followed was heart-rending. The South African players were distraught beyond words. Ismail was on her knees in despair, van Niekerk had her hands on her head in utter disbelief while rest of the South Africa players cut forlorn figures in the field.

2020 ICC World T20 semi-final

The thing about sport is that it teaches you to rise like a phoenix despite the magnitude of your fall. And that’s what South Africa did. They featured in the ICC World T20 2020 event with fresh energy. With three wins and one abandoned fixture, they emerged as the table-toppers in their group. Based on their final group standings they booked a place in the semis and were due to face the Aussies. 

With the persistent threat of rain lurking around, Dane van Niekerk chose to field first in the semis. Her bowlers backed her up with a phenomenal bowling display and limited the star-studded Australian batting to a mere 134 in 20 overs.

A dejected Nadine de Klerk after South Africa’s loss to Australia in the ICC World T20 2020 semi-final © Getty Images

Had it been a full 20 over game then it would have given the South African batters those extra few balls to get their eye in. But the rain had other plans. Heavy drizzle resulted in the loss of overs and that ultimately spread panic in the Proteas camp. With 32 needed off three overs, Laura Wolvaardt tried her heart out but in vain as South Africa missed out by five runs. 

With yet another unceremonious exit in the semis this year, there are bound to be questions as to what is preventing South Africa from getting into the final and it seems that even the best of the lot do not have any answers at the moment.

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Speaking on yet another heart-wrenching exit, South Africa’s star allrounder Dane van Niekerk told Women’s CricZone, “If I had the answer then we wouldn’t have been knocked out of the semis. We probably would have qualified for the final.”

“Playing in a World Cup semifinal and not having crossed the barrier on any of the previous occasions does play on your mind and takes a toll on you mentally.”

But just as the sun doesn’t seize to rise daily, the Protea fire won’t seize to burn. But will it produce the kind of energy needed to take the Rainbow Nation all the way in the future? Only time will tell. Till then the insatiable longing for the silverware will continue to persist in the Proteas’ dressing room.