“It’s just a game, don’t worry about it…”
Tuesday’s World Cup semi-final result between New Zealand and South Africa hurt. It really physically hurt me.
Not in a ‘my favourite character just died in Game of Thrones kind of way’, or the hurt you feel when you make a joke in the office and nobody laughs.
This hurt is more along the lines of your best friend running off with your girlfriend, but also befriending and taking your cat with, while stealing your new car. This, for the record, has never happened to me, but I’m guessing what I’m feeling right now would be close to the impact of such a scenario.
Why? Well that is because cricket is just so much more than a game. It’s a cliché thrown about, but when a result levels you to your core, you can’t but help to see the game for what it truly is.
I woke up at 2:24 AM (SA time) on the morning of the match, like many other Proteas fans, so I didn’t miss anything from the toss onwards. Sounds like an extreme thing to do to the mere cricket observer, but it was a very natural thing for me to do.
After supporting the Proteas for many years, it’s not like just supporting a team, it’s more like supporting a bunch of guys you get to know and experience a journey with. They aren’t your friends, but more your cricketing family. You don’t just want them to succeed, it’s all you can think about, and with the nature of the game, you feel unique bonds develop with them as they go about their individual roles in the team.
There are various human elements to these bonds. We all wish we could run in and bowl as fast and ferociously as Dale Steyn, or carve bowlers apart like AB de Villiers. We wish we could see ourselves as a David Miller, coming of age and developing into a serious international talent on the biggest stage, or being a Hashim Amla who gets on with the job and never looks to break so much as a sweat.
There’s the delight in seeing failure turn into success, like Imran Tahir becoming a world-class limited overs spinner after being laughed off the Test arena. Watching Rilee Rossouw come good at the top of the order after all those ducks he was dismissed for while fighting for a spot in the World Cup squad, or sitting in anticipation knowing that Quinton De Kock is just one knock away from lighting up the World Cup.
Every player in our respective teams have stories, as fans we know them, we build and evolve them, we thrive on them. It’s our way of investing in the process, a process that takes it far beyond a mere recreational activity.
To be a Proteas fan, this is amplified times a hundred as a ball doesn’t even have to be bowled for the blood to start rushing. To watch AB stand there at the toss yesterday and see him get the luxury of choice, you light up knowing how he really wanted to bat first as that’s what his team does best. As captain he wants the best chance of winning from ball one, as this wasn’t just a ‘semi-final’ for him, but the most must-win game of his life so far.
You feel for him when he then has to justify why out-of-touch Vernon Philander gets picked ahead of in-form Kyle Abbott. The true reason is of course political, but AB can’t say that, he just has to say he is preferred on the day, or he is ‘starting to look good in the nets’.
You feel for Abbott here as you know the troubles he had prior to the World Cup and how people (me included) were challenging his very inclusion in the squad. He fought through the adversity though, and looked a World Cup veteran with the chances given. Only for his biggest chance to be taken away from him essentially as he is white.
You naturally then feel for Philander too. The players don’t pick themselves of course, nor will they decline selection. Big Vern is the kind of guy who gives of his all, having gone through troubles of his own to get to where he is today, so there is only so much sympathy he can show Abbott before moving to the job at hand.
As a Proteas fan, this really has never been just a game, it’s something that not even the most talented of wordsmith could ever articulate.
When the heavens opened and dampened the inevitable charge of De Villiers and Du Plessis with the bat, utter disbelief is all you are left with. Rain related tragedies in 1992 and 2003 aside, Faf has had to play second fiddle to AB for pretty much most of his career, but here he was with his mate, World Cup semi-final, well set and poised for a famous hundred. An accolade he so richly deserved, but yet so coldly thwarted on.
Sport has a habit of making heroes and villains, and in the closing stages this was again very much the case. How could AB not gather the ball to run out Anderson? How could De Kock not gather the ball to run out Elliot, and how could Duminy and Behardien get into a tangle to drop the same Elliot when every Kiwi hope rested on him? Four years of anticipation, and moments like these besiege the players, sport can be so cruel.
These split second moments for the players on the field become absolute eternities for us fans watching on TV, and as much as we try forget them, they become etched in our brains. The difference between success and failure - the greater the stage, the finer the line.
This latest Proteas knockout will hurt for some time to come, perhaps even more so than the great 1999 debacle. All these tragedies hurt in different ways, all showing that this is never just a game.
But this is exactly how it should be, as for the players it is way worse.
You can easily say they shouldn’t make mistakes as they are paid well to play the game. But for them, it’s not a game either, it can become all consuming at times and you only have to see the emotion shown by the Proteas players at the end of the match to appreciate this fact.
As we move our attention onto the big India vs Australia semi-final, have a think about your team, and be okay with the fact that all of this is so much more than a game. And long may it be so!
Protea fire forever!