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Feature

Ice-cool South Africa finally put together the complete game

After seven failed attempts, their men's World Cup semi-final jinx is broken. After plenty of scrapping at this World Cup, they were clinical in their quest for history

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
27-Jun-2024
The complete game. After seven games of scrapping at the T20 World Cup 2024, that's what Aiden Markram was searching for. Five overs into the semi-final, his bowlers seemed to give him that.
Marco Jansen and Kagiso Rabada relied on South Africa's traditional strengths of seam movement and bounce, before Anrich Nortje brought express pace to floor Afghanistan and end their fairytale. Overall, South Africa's seamers were excellent at moving the ball back into the right-handers off good length, and used their height to vary that with back-of-length deliveries that surprised the batters. Afghanistan lost their leading run-scorers early and were never able to properly counter-attack, and that may be for several reasons.
The quality and aggression of South Africa's attack is one, the difficulty of the surface another, and Rashid Khan admitted the team had not slept much since qualifying for the semi-final late on Monday night local time. Some of the reasons for the latter was because of a travel delay and some of it because they were celebrating so much. The logistics of the tournament's travel aside, Afghanistan's emotional over-expenditure was understandable and few teams will relate to that better than South Africa. Historically, it has been them that have been overwhelmed by expectation and the statistics show it: seven men's World Cup semi-finals, no wins. But on Wednesday night in Tarouba, they were ice-cold.
The wickets fell so quickly there was barely time for the South Africans to celebrate but the absence of major outbursts was noticeable. In fact, the most animated of the South Africans was someone not involved in any of the dismissals at all - Tristan Stubbs. He is also the youngest member of the squad and the only one who has not experienced knockout heartbreak. Stubbs' air punches, leaps and whoops at the fall of every wicket gave a glimpse of the joy the others kept inside and, from a distance, were a delight to watch. South Africa have never had cause for raw ecstasy in a men's World Cup semi-final and Stubbs showed what that could look like.

****

The perfect game. After seven games of scrapping at this World Cup, Aiden Markram must have known tournament runs are rarely flawless. Three overs into the chase against Afghanistan, South Africa's batters would have known it was not going to be easy.
They had only six runs on the board, Quinton de Kock had been bowled by a Fazalhaq Farooqi inswinger and Markram should have been out but Afghanistan did not review when he nicked off against Naveen-ul-Haq. With the bounce becoming more variable, South Africa had to resurrect the resilience of New York, where runs were also hard to come by but they were always able to get just enough. They knew it would not be pretty. And then two overs later, against the run of play, Markram stood tall and played the perfect cover drive. He took a step forward, leaned into the ball, struck it on the sweet spot and held the pose. On a difficult surface, shots of that quality were rare and that one, in the middle of a 13-run over, shifted momentum and opened South Africa's door to the final.
It was not the perfect game South Africa were after, just a series of perfect moments to give an imperfect country reasons to hope that what seems impossible was not.
At 4.37am Thursday morning South African time, when Reeza Hendricks hit the winning runs, ordinary South Africans would have been waking up in mid-winter (happily with electricity, which makes a welcome change), most of them getting ready to take long commutes to work and more than likely seeing the news that the team had reached the final through social media because they would not have the cable television subscription needed to watch the match. And when they realised what had happened, they may have reflected on 18 months of unprecedented success in South African sport.
Since last February, these are the achievements: the women's national cricket team reached the final of the home T20 World Cup, the women's national football team became the first senior side to get out of the group stage at the FIFA World Cup, the Springboks won a fourth World Cup, and the men's national football team had their best finish in the African Cup of Nations since 2000. Winning is contagious, it seems, and the feeling that South Africans are winners has finally come to men's cricket. And it could not have happened at a more opportune time and place.
In 2007, in the semi-final against Australia in St Lucia, South Africa were 27 for 5 on their way to 149 in a game they eventually lost by seven wickets. Of all their semi-final failings - and there have been seven, remember - that was the most limp. Seventeen years later, they have gone back to the Caribbean, won eight out of eight, and produced the most dominant knockout performance in their history.
South Africans have a habit of believing every tournament will be the one that they win and when they don't, they console themselves that there will be a next time. This time feels different. Perhaps after all that waiting, their next time is right now.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's correspondent for South Africa and women's cricket

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