South Africa and the Birmingham venue of Edgbaston have the worst of pasts, headlined by an unforgettable afternoon of drama in the summer of 1999. But the Proteas would have to come here again eventually and meet their demons head-on.
Now, on Wednesday 19 June, South Africa’s modern men in green – and chasing gold – will have to exorcise those demons and more. And it’s not enough that the Proteas find themselves in middle England chasing World Cup survival, they are also looking to avoid a third straight World Cup exit at the hands of New Zealand.
The Black Caps might not have the consistency of their rugby compatriots in black, but they have routinely made the Proteas see black in this particular tournament. No doubt, if captain Faf du Plessis closes his eyes, his mind goes back to Dhaka 2011 and Kyle Mills rubbing a bizarrely improvised version of the Haka in his face. Du Plessis had just played his part in the run-out of AB de Villiers and left the door ajar for the Kiwis.
To their credit, the New Zealanders took a hard look at themselves not long after that tournament and were not proud of the image they had portrayed on and off the field. Winning at all costs was losing them friends and alienating fans in their own corner of the world.
Fast forward to the “other” great semifinal in Cricket World Cup history and South Africa were beaten in 2015 by the most genuinely “nice blokes” team that New Zealand might have produced. Perhaps that made this loss in Auckland even tougher to stomach, because the team couldn’t draw on anger to process their grief or begrudge Brendon McCullum and his men their moment of brilliance.
Picking up the pieces from Eden Park
The Black Caps were heroes, but had the good grace to console their fallen foes at Eden Park that night. Even so, tears of despair were visible on the faces of men like Morne Morkel and De Villiers. Morkel and the former Proteas captain didn’t have enough in the tank for another World Cup, but those they left behind are trying to pick up those pieces.
“It will be in the back of our mind a little, but it is a new day. We will play against them in a new way,” said veteran spinner Imran Tahir.
New day. New game. New Zealand. South Africa need a new result against their old nemesis or there will be a familiar narrative being picked apart come the morning after.
“As a group, we are really strong and we feel like we can do something really special,” said Tahir. “Obviously, we have been down after the first week and the rain, and this and that,” he added, acknowledging that the slow start had backed South Africa into a corner.
There is pressure now, a must-win kind of pressure. This and that no longer matter. It is do or die.
“There is pressure,” Tahir agreed. “You can say yes or no, or however you take it. This is the World Cup. We are here to win, they [New Zealand] are here to win. Everyone is here to win the World Cup.”
Not just yet
Only a win against New Zealand will do, because anything else is too grim to contemplate for a nation that prides itself on being at least a contender. The end of South Africa’s World Cup is not supposed to come in the middle of the country, in the middle of the tournament.
Not yet, has become their motto. Not just yet.
To go to Lord’s on Sunday 23 June – the Proteas’ next fixture after the Black Caps – and play a dead rubber against an equally abject Pakistan would be tortuous for South Africa. Worse than that, in fact. Far worse.
It would be embarrassing, underwhelming and completely out of character. They have always saved the drama for the business end of competitions. After an admittedly laboured start, they are all business now. All-rounder Chris Morris, never one to mince his words in contemplation, admitted that the simplicity of the situation was one that he and the rest of the team embraced.
Like the youngsters in the team, Morris wasn’t there in 2015. Of course, he saw what happened that night and felt sadness at watching friends and compatriots suffer so publicly and so savagely.
He and those who are in England now have a chance to change a worrying trend, one in which New Zealand appear to be the pallbearers of the Proteas’ tournament hopes. South Africa has to beat a Kiwi side that says they have not been afforded the respect their pedigree and potential deserve. And one that has yet to taste defeat in this Cricket World Cup.
Returning to Edgbaston
This week in England, Royal Ascot takes pride of place. It is the ultimate platform in flat racing, and the sport of kings truly puts on its royal best.
While the major nations jockey for position before the home straight in the Cricket World Cup, South Africa find themselves handicapped by a heavy-legged start.
Now, they have to be almost at full gallop, urgently toiling from the back of the field. They have drawn strength from the wild ponies of Pakistan, who stormed back from the dead in 1992.
It was outrageous then, and it would be astonishing now. South Africa refuse to believe that the win in Cardiff over Afghanistan was the last kick of a doomed filly.
They insist that, around the bend, they will find the momentum that will carry them home.
New Zealand and old wounds from the World Cup itself are all obstacles in their way, but the vintage of 2019 is holding onto the belief that this time the script is different.
There would be no better place for them to fan their precarious flicker of hope than at the very Edgbaston cemetery whose ghosts of old still haunt the dreams of kids who hadn’t even been imagined when darkness first truly visited South African cricket at a World Cup.
It had to be Edgbaston, along with the mourning black of the Kiwi outfit.
Not yet with the casket, South Africa insist.
Not just yet.