Eleven broken men walked scattered at the Eden Gardens; two joyous men leapt in delirium. This one shot, at the end of a nerve-battering semifinal between Australia and South Africa, captured the beauty and cruelty of the sport.
For South Africa, a dream lay broken in the crushed grass of the historic arena. The 11 tired men in dark green had their bodies drained and minds defeated. This was supposed to be the oasis, the jinx-breaker, the narrative-shifter, but the dream they had dreamt for six weeks now lay in tatters. Not far from them, two good friends in yellow were rushing towards their equally ecstatic teammates. In the Australian dug-out, a dream was revived, the old order was restored. In a knockout World Cup game, they would invariably prevail over South Africa, even if it’s by merely three wickets. It’s an unbendable truth of our times.
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It was a game scripted in the past, like an old director, running out of ideas mishmash-ing his old narratives, just replacing the old actors with new ones, forcing a tweak or two, but around the thread built over the old narrative arcs. All the slapstick confusion and unusual dilemmas, all the melodrama and pathos, all the laughter and tears. In the end, the cold reality was that Australia did Australia things, and South Africa did South Africa things. The country would forgive the defeat, unlike the tie in 1999, but it would not be forgotten.
This would hurt them, perhaps not haunt them as much. A regret but not a scar. Eden Gardens was a toned-down version of Edgbaston, both in drama and quality.
The difference between both teams, then and now, was that Australia believed and South Africa merely hoped. Australia seized the moments, South Africa wished for moments. Like a callous anti-hero, hope lingered till the end for South Africa. Every time the game seemed to drift irreversibly from their grasp, a ray of hope arrived: Like when Aiden Markram disarrayed David Warner’s stumps to end a steaming opening stand of 60 runs in six overs. Like when Tabraiz Shamsi ripped out the wickets of Marnus Labuschagne and Glenn Maxwell and tore into a spontaneous sprint; or finally when Gerald Coetzee dismissed Steve Smith and then toe-crushed Josh Inglis.
Buoyed by hope, driven by a sense of destiny, they fought and hoped till the end. Every sinew was strained, every drop of sweat was dropped, every trick was tried, every path travelled. Yet, in the end, they stood defeated, deflated.
Australia, on the other hand, believed. Even when they lost Labuschagne and Maxwell in quick succession, or when Inglis departed, with Australia 21 runs adrift of the target, they did not panic, or resorted to something silly. Pat Cummins, composing yet another serene knock, and Mitchell Starc knew how to handle the situation.
Perhaps, it was experience (as Cummins would later say), or belief, or will, or ruthlessness (as Temba Bavuma would compliment the Aussies). All these traits, Australia showed more than the South Africans.
But it was a defeat that they would pine over, barrage their mind with what ifs. What if they had fielded first? What if they had weathered the new ball without losing four wickets? What if they had not gifted wickets to Travis Head? What if they had reviewed the caught behind verdict against Gerald Coetzee? What if they had clung to the catches of Travis Head early, and Steve Smith later? All the ifs and buts, bits and scraps would torment the Proteas for years to come. As it has for the best part of their post-apartheid era.
Desire and determination
But in the end, Australia were sheer bloody-minded. At the bottom of their win was their desire, their preternatural capacity to seize moments, to cut a wound deeper and deeper, to cherish even half a gift that comes their way.
A moist pitch, gloomy skies and two shining new balls. Starc and Josh Hazlewood would have pinched themselves to confirm that it was not a dream. Both tucked into the conditions, hitting the perfect length, full but not full enough to drive, and the precise line, whistling past off-stump. The movement was not wicked, but just enough to keep South Africa’s batsmen uncertain, for them to stab and prod unsurely at the whirling white ball.
It’s a sign of South Africa’s gumption that they fought back from hopeless situations. But that would rarely suffice against Australia. They were both stronger and braver.
Later, when Heinrich Klaasen and David Miller had resurrected them with a 95-run stand, came along Travis Head with a combined haul of 16 wickets in 63 games. He would grab two in two balls to send the Proteas down the road to perdition. He would subsequently reel out 62 runs off 48 balls to kickstart their chase. Every game, Australia has unearthed new heroes. It was Head’s turn to shine.
When Australia’s turn came to bat, they knew exactly how to hunt down the target. David Warner and Head hoisted 60 runs in six overs, merging classical stroke-play with calculated risks. The pitch had changed and they knew South Africa’s spinners would be influential as the night dragged on. The movement off the surface had disappeared but there was more turn for the spinners. The early assault meant that they could afford to play out the trio Keshav Maharaj, Tabraiz Shamsi and Aiden Markram. The three combined to leak only 89 runs in 28 overs and took four wickets. Some wickets they knew they would lose, but the early onslaught, both with the bat and ball, ensured that Australia did not lag in the end. Look not beyond the first 10 overs of each innings to understand how and when South Africa lost the game. The rest was only for the sake of dramatics.
Thus, rather than breaking the well-worn cliches, the game only embellished them. The result of the match firms up the idea of Australia as a team of believers and South Africa as one of hopers. Belief trumps hope, as Australia, South Africa and the world came to know, yet again.