Not even the passage of 27 years and two World Cup victories have been enough to exorcise the horror of that moment. 16-3 down at half-time in the deciding Test of the 1981 New Zealand tour, the Boks had miraculously fought back to level the scores at 22-all, with only injury-time left.
But referee Clive Norling had other ideas. A penalty, apparently concocted out of nowhere, went the way of the home side. A minute later, we were confronted with the unspeakably awful image of All Black fullback Allan Hewson raising his arms and almost grinning out his gum-guards after he had stroked the kick safely home. New Zealand took the match and with it the series.
In all the years of supporting our national sports teams, this is my worst memory. Second worst — no prizes for guessing that one — is the ghastly, floundering stuff-up that saw the Proteas snatch defeat from the jaws of what could and should have been a miraculous victory in that World Cup semifinal against Australia in 1999.
While I’m on the subject, my third-worst memory is of seeing Kevin Curren come short in the Wimbledon final against a certain teenager named Boris Becker — this after blowing Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe off the court in his two previous matches. That was in 1985. No South African has since even come close to winning tennis’s ultimate prize.
Fortunately, these disappointments have been balanced by some epic triumphs, like the five-run victory against Australia in Sydney in 1994 and the May 25 1995 World Rugby Cup miracle at Ellis Park. Then there is the fact that sixteen years after rejoining the international cricket arena, South Africa currently have the best overall one-day record of all (even if a World Cup triumph has thus far eluded them).
The Proteas’ Test record has also been pretty impressive, Australian dominance notwithstanding.
Funny how these things seem to matter so much …
Statistics are not everything, but they unquestionably have much to do with cricket’s enduring appeal. They enable individual players to achieve a kind of immortality via the record books, and give succeeding generations something to aim at. In this regard, part of the abiding interest of following the fortunes of the national cricket team is the awareness that as a cricketing nation, South Africa faces the additional challenge of having to make up for lost time.
Prior to 1992, when the Proteas played their first post-exile Test match, there were virtually no South African players on the lists of all-time run scorers and wicket-takers. Only through their superior averages did a few — Graeme Pollock, Colin Bland and Neil Adcock among them — make the cut.
The simple reason for this was that until that date, South Africa had played unusually few Test matches compared with other countries. None at all were played in the 1970 to 1992 period, the years when the anti-apartheid sports boycott was in force, but even before then Tests had only been played against the three “white” Test countries: England, Australia and (to a much more infrequent extent) New Zealand.
The result of this was that two international players (Richard Hadlee and Kapil Dev) had already passed 400 Test wickets and several more were poised to do so long before a South African player (Allan Donald) had reached the 200-mark. So far as run-scoring goes, in 1992 Bruce Mitchell (a pre-war era player) still topped the South African all-time list with a mere 3 471. By then, Sunil Gavaskar and Allan Border had passed 10 000.
As always, we can only speculate as to what such giants as Graeme Pollock, his brother, Peter, Eddie Barlow, Mike Proctor and Barry Richards would have achieved had politics not curtailed their burgeoning international careers.
One also thinks of the exile-era stars who never got to play Test cricket at all and who undoubtedly would have made their mark, amongst them Clive Rice, Vince van der Bijl and Garth le Roux. Jimmy Cook was nearing the end of his illustrious career at the time of readmission and played just three Tests. Peter Kirsten was luckier, but in his case too, most of his best years were behind him when he received his first cap. One can never underestimate the efficacy of the sports boycott in ultimately leading to a change in political dispensation in the country.
Given sufficient playing opportunities, more and more South African names have been appearing on the “all-time” lists. Donald and Gary Kirsten led the way here. The former, despite losing out in the early years of his career when the Test ban was still in force, ended his career with 330 wickets, at an excellent average of 22,25 and a phenomenal strike rate of 47. On his retirement, Kirsten had amassed 7 249 runs, at an average of 45,27, including 21 centuries. Mark Boucher, meanwhile, has established a record for catches behind the wicket, and with Adam Gilchrist having now left the arena, he is likely to hold it for many years to come.
Donald was eventually passed by Shaun Pollock, who retired this year having become the eighth-highest Test wicket-taker with 421 (in one-day internationals, he is currently in fifth place). He also scored nearly 4 000 runs, at an average comfortably in the 30s, making him one of the all-time great all-rounders as well.
Jacques Kallis, of course, passed Kirsten long ago. He is currently a few hundred short of 10 000 Test runs, is eighth on the all-time run-makers list and — depending on how the careers of Rahul Dravid, Ricky Ponting and Sachin Tendulkar develop — has a genuine chance of even ending his career on top of the pile.
Even if he does not, he can claim to be a greater player by virtue of his fine bowling record — 230 wickets at a handy average, not to mention nearly 250 more in the shorter versions of the game. In terms of all-round achievement, he is easily up there with such legendary figures as Sir Garfield Sobers, Imran Khan and Ian Botham.
Potential milestone-makers to watch in the current side are Graeme Smith, still only in mid-career and well on his way to 6 000 runs; Makhaya Ntini, now forging steadily towards his 400th wicket; and Dale Steyn. The latter is still early in his career, but is rocketing up the table at an astounding rate.
Naturally, there have been disappointments as well. No world-class spinner has emerged, for example (the much under-valued Paul Adams came closest in this regard), while injuries quickly ended the promising careers of Brett Schultz and Mfuneko Ngam. The talented Darryll Cullinan ended up having only a good career when he could have had a great one.
Rather unfairly, in light of his impressive overall record, he seems destined to be remembered primarily for coming off so thoroughly second best — both mentally and physically — in his duel with Shane Warne. How I used to long for Cullinan to turn the tables on the swaggering Aussie bully, but it never happened (unless you count the time — he was a competent part-time bowler, as well — he managed to capture Warne’s wicket in a one-day game. Not quite the same thing …)
There has been a second kind of “catching up” South Africa has had to do. Despite the memorable achievements of the latter half of the 1960s (including two series victories over Australia, one a four-nil whitewash), at the time of the country’s expulsion from international cricket, the overall playing record of national cricket was a still disappointing played 172, won 38, lost 77, drawn 57.
Much of this was a legacy of the pre-World War II era, when the team were frankly out of their depth. During those years, Australia beat South Africa 22 times (what Bradman in particular did to our shlemazel bowlers doesn’t bear thinking about) whilst losing only once. England, while less dominant, were nevertheless also usually too good for South Africa (on one occasion even bowling them out for 26).
Since re-admission, the ratio has been almost completely reversed. There have been 75 wins against only 40 losses, an impressive accomplishment, even if some of those victories have been recorded against substandard Zimbabwe and Bangladesh. At this rate, the deficit will be wiped out altogether within a year or two, although the upcoming Australian Tests may delay this. Just being realistic.
Even if the overall fortunes of the side take a downturn, there is always the progress of individual players to watch. I look forward to the England tour with greedy anticipation.