T20 WORLD CUP 2024

South Africa home, almost alone

The runners-up's return home was in stark contrast to World Cup champions India
The runners-up's return home was in stark contrast to World Cup champions India ©AFP

Four hours after Rohit Sharma's squad and the Men's T20 World Cup trophy were scheduled to be received by Narendra Modi in Delhi on Thursday, South Africa's returnees from the tournament presented themselves to their country's acting deputy director general from the department of sport, arts and culture in Johannesburg.

The Indians got the prime minister himself, the South Africans some lowly functionary. Correction: some acting lowly functionary. Nothing illustrated the gulf between winning and losing the final, at Kensington Oval in Bridgetown, Barbados on Saturday, as aptly as the stature of the respective suits on hand to greet the players.

And that despite the teams having been separated by a scant seven runs. Only India's five-run win over Pakistan in the inaugural edition of the tournament in 2007 was tighter, and Saturday's decider was one of only three of the nine that have gone into the final over.

"Although [South Africa] fell short at the end, they made us immensely proud," Rihan Richards, CSA's president, told a press conference. "True victory lies in the quality of the competition, not merely the final score."

Good luck telling that to prime ministers, acting functionaries and the rest of us. Winners are winners and losers are losers, and the margin doesn't matter. Did it make a difference that the South Africans were beaten by a team that included modern greats like Virat Kohli and Jasprit Bumrah?

"I think you could tell by the emotions of the players on the field that it probably didn't," Rob Walter said. "To lose that way always hurts. When margins are small you're always reflecting on what might have been."

What might have been was unprecedented, and still is. South Africa looked on their way to winning the only Men's World Cup final they had reached when they needed 30 runs off the last 30 balls with six wickets in hand and Heinrich Klaasen and David Miller well set at the crease. Did what happened in those five overs count among this team's infamous failures to nail down victory under pressure?

"I do believe South Africa will have to win a World Cup for everyone to stop talking about choking," Walter said. "It seems that tag will follow us until the trophy is lifted."

The next opportunity to put something in the cabinet will be at the Champions Trophy in Pakistan in February and March next year. But it's World Cups that matter most, and the T20 version will be contested again in Sri Lanka and India in 2026. The 2027 ODI World Cup will be played in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Namibia.

South Africa's chances in 2026 would be better if Quinton de Kock was still in the mix. He scored two half-centuries in nine innings at the T20 World Cup and was his team's highest run-scorer. But De Kock has retired from the other formats, and Walter spoke in December about how he had to talk the left-hander out of quitting completely after last year's World Cup in India. What had Walter heard from De Kock after Saturday?

"Quinny's an enigma. He hasn't officially called time, so we have that little glimmer of hope that sits in the background. He has high standards and has dreamed about a World Cup win for a long time. Whether we see him again, time will tell. It wasn't the right time after the final to have that conversation. So let me leave it at saying your guess is as good as mine."

But South Africa can continue to count on Miller, who posted on social media after the final: "Contrary to reports I have not retired from T20 international cricket. I will continue to be available for the Proteas. The best is yet to come."

De Kock was not on hand to answer the question himself. He and eight of his South Africa squadmates - and two of the three travelling reserves - had remained in the northern hemisphere to play in the MLC. Two more had travelled to Sri Lanka for the LPL. The MLC commences on Friday while the LPL started earlier this week on July 01, Monday.

Only Keshav Maharaj and Ottneil Baartman were around to avail themselves for one-on-one chats with attendant reporters. They did so at CSA's offices, which were exponentially less festive and less populated than the Wankhede and the streets around it in Mumbai - where the trophy and the triumph it symbolised were due to be shared with thousands of India's fans later on Thursday.

Had South Africa won the final, "all players and management" would have been present for a press conference at the Wanderers in Johannesburg on Wednesday, according to scenario planning sent to the media on Friday. An hour of "fan meet-and-greet" was set for the Wanderers on Wednesday afternoon, with a "Champion Trophy Tour" tentatively scheduled to start on Friday.

How any of that would have been possible given most of the players' league commitments is difficult to fathom. Saturday's result put paid to that agenda. And then came Hurricane Beryl, which forced the South Africans to flee the scene of their disappointment with something approaching indecent haste.

Given all that, maybe the acting deputy director general from the department of sport, arts and culture was a good fit for Thursday's occasion. If you are going to have to put up with meeting a suit in those circumstances, better that they're lowly.

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