Another World Cup, another disappointing end for South Africa. Or was it? Unlike previous iterations marred by miscalculations, dropped bats and rampant ineptitude, the Proteas return from this tournament with their reputations somewhat intact. The more pertinent question then concerns a different C-word. Rather than speak of ‘choking’, let us ponder about a ‘ceiling’.

As captain Temba Bavuma boards the long flight back to Johannesburg he’ll surely wonder if his team deserved a place in the semi-finals. They’d just beaten England, an outfit considered to be the prototype in the limited overs formats. They had overcome a challenging situation to rescue a victory against Sri Lanka in a match that had disaster written all over it. And though they failed to put West Indies and Bangladesh to the sword in the manner that some may have wanted, they still won those contests without reaching a higher gear.

It was only against Australia that they fumbled. A five-wicket defeat born out of a poor performance with the bat ultimately cost them. And though two key members of that batting unit sparkled against England – with Rassie van der Dussen reaching 94 not-out from 60 deliveries, and Aiden Markram needing just 25 balls for his unbeaten 52 – as a collective they struggled to impose themselves when it mattered elsewhere.

Van der Dussen ended as South Africa’s highest run scorer but his strike-rate of 116 is the lowest among the top eight batters at the World Cup. Markram’s strike-rate of 145 is healthy, and David Miller’s 133 is respectable, but four other batters – Temba Bavuma (108), Quinton de Kock (107), Reeza Hendricks (101) and Heinrich Klaasen (100) – stayed for too long in the slow lane. Of course the low and slow decks of Sharjah and Dubai have hampered flow of runs, but too often the unit as a whole appeared one dimensional.

South Africa hit 46 fours and 22 sixes for a combined total of 68 boundaries. England and Australia crossed or cleared the rope 79 and 80 times respectively. Jos Buttler and David Warner were the main culprits but they weren’t alone. Net run rate cost South Africa in the end and their failure to hit boundaries was at the heart of this.

As captain Temba Bavuma boards the long flight back to Johannesburg he’ll surely wonder if his team deserved a place in the semi-finals. AP

Their bowling however was formidable and in Anrich Nortje, Kagiso Rabada and Tabraiz Shamsi they have a spearhead that is as piercing as any in world cricket. Nortje in particular deserves praise. He entered this competition largely in the shadow of Rabada who has been the leader of the attack ever since Dale Steyn abdicated that title.

Nortje might not have the tricks and variations of some of the other pacemen but he is searingly fast and hits two lengths at will. His 19.2 overs from five games cost just 104 runs – 5.37 an over –and he bagged nine wickets for an average of just 11.55.

Credit should also go to the support staff. Death bowling has been an Achilles heel in the past but Dwaine Pretorius stepped up and effectively secured his future in the team by performing an unpopular task with admirable clarity. His loping action from a steep height allows him to bowl into the surface while still extracting enough bounce to trouble batters looking to send him into orbit. Along with cutters and slower balls he has emerged as an unlikely linchpin of the attack.

Markram’s part timers at the top of the order gave Bavuma the luxury of holding Shamsi back until after the powerplay, but there are still concerns over Keshab Maharaj’s effectiveness in this format. His economy of 6.68 is tidy enough, and the prevention of runs rather the accumulation of wickets is his primary goal, but an average of 42 and a strike rate of 38 does point to a comparative toothlessness that will need redress.

That this is clearly nitpicking is down to Bavuma’s leadership. He received plaudits for the way he handled the furore following De Kock’s decision not to kneel with his teammates in a unified stance against racism, but the Proteas captain is not just a socially astute student of history.

It would be too easy to focus entirely on Bavuma’s contribution to the culture of the team. He is clearly the right man in the job at a time when cricket in South Africa is facing a reckoning. But to ignore his contributions with bat in hand or on the field would be to do him a disservice.

When holding the willow, he is no AB de Villiers or Faf du Plessis, but he is a capable anchor and proved his worth in the tricky run chase against Sri Lanka. That run-a-ball 46 contained just a four and a six apiece, but it set the platform for Miller’s fireworks.

Then there is his captaincy. He handled his bowlers like a seasoned pro (which he is, having captained his domestic side the Lions to titles back home) and adopted creative tactics in the field as evidenced by his positioning of a man directly behind the bowler’s arm in order to counter the threat of West Indies’ power hitters.

All told this was a commendable World Cup for the captain and his charges. But is that enough? If this is indeed the ceiling of the side then alarm bells should be sounding at Cricket South Africa headquarters.

Finishing third in a three-way tie on points might feel harsh, but on the evidence of the last few weeks it is what South Africa deserve. Though they beat England, they are empirically an inferior team when compared to those who have advanced to the next round. In the past South African teams failed to reach their potential. As disconcerting as this was, there was at least the promise of more.

Daniel Gallan is a freelance journalist from South Africa now living in the UK. He has written for numerous publications around the world including Cricinfo, Cricbuzz, The Guardian and the Telegraph.

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