“Saturday night, you strode off the pitch of victory and passed into legend.” With those words, South Africa president Cyril Ramaphosa greeted the rugby team when it returned with the World Cup, a trophy it retained in Paris on October 28.
Including Sunday’s game against India, South Africa’s cricket team are four games away from emulating the Springboks. “We obviously came here with the aim of getting to the end. And we’re getting closer and closer to that. And with that happening, with the performances that we’ve put up, it’s definitely strengthened us within the team,” said South Africa skipper Temba Bavuma here on Saturday.
Even if Bavuma’s band of men make the final in Ahmedabad on November 19, they won’t be the first South Africa cricket team to do that this year. That honour goes to the women who made the World T20 final in February. En route they beat England, Bangladesh, New Zealand and Sri Lanka.
Making it a good year for South African sport was Banyana, the women’s football team, getting out of the group stage in the World Cup for the first time. Their passage to Australia and New Zealand depended on the benevolence of billionaire Patrice Motsepe but the team coached by Desiree Ellis narrowly lost to Sweden after leading against the European giants for 65 minutes, held Argentina and beat Italy before bowing out in the round of 16. This after three group stage losses in the 2019 World Cup.
And now their cricket team has a foot in the semi-final of the ODI World Cup. Their next game, Bavuma said, was a meeting of two in-form teams but proof of how well the campaign has gone – the blip against Netherlands notwithstanding – lay in the skipper saying that he hadn’t heard the word chokers come up till now.
“To choke? I don’t know how to answer that. I think if we come unstuck tomorrow, I don’t think it’ll be a matter of choking. I doubt you would say that about India as well if they come unstuck if they would choke.”
Bavuma hasn’t got going but because he said “the other batters are smashing it” South Africa have scored big. With 10 wickets in five games, Gerald Coetzee is the most successful fast bowler between overs 11 to 40, according to ESPNCricinfo, and he wasn’t even the first choice.
Rassie van der Dusen, one of the stars of their campaign, has also spoken of a team brought together by Covid-19, Black Lives Matter and various political stories at home. And by the fact that players go back a long way. Quinton de Kock and Kagiso Rabada, he said, have played together since they were young.
After Netherlands surprised them, South Africa beat New Zealand by 190 runs. An emphatic statement, that too against a team that had won its first four games. Equally importantly, it came up against a team South Africa had lost to in 2019, twice in 2015, in the quarter-finals in 2011, in the Super Six in 2007 and in 2003.
“Sports has the power to change the world,” is among Nelson Mandela’s quotes repeated most often. “It has the power to unite people in way little else does…Sport can create hope where once there was only despair,” he had said. In a Springbok shirt, Mandela had got a country, segregated and separated, to put aside differences in the immediate aftermath of the 1995 rugby World Cup title.
So it fit that Ramaphosa would tell Siya Kolisi’s team that “you have lifted the spirits of an entire nation.” Kolisi is South Africa’s first Black rugby Test captain and has inspired Black people to take up a sport they had shunned, even cheering the opposition team, in the years of apartheid.
Not too long ago, players of colour were forced to play in separate leagues with the Springboks being chosen from only white players. Proof of change lay in Soweto, the Johannesburg township that once hated the team, cheering Springboks by breaking into a “Viva Bokke (Springboks), Viva” chant.
Asked how South Africa’s run in the ODI World Cup has united the country, Bavuma said: “We’ve obviously taken note of outside the team, everything that is happening, the performances and success of the rugby team back home, and the positive energy that we’ve gotten from the rugby boys as well.”
Going forward, he said, South Africa need to “regulate our emotions as much as we can and make sure we’re in the best space possible to play our best cricket the way we want to do it.”