“We’ve got ourselves to blame,” a “gutted” Boucher said.
In situations like these, when a team that has historically disappointed in pressure moments at World Cups to the point that everyone expects some strange coming together of circumstances to conspire against them, it is cruel to ask them to analyse why. It is easier to just let them sit with it and maybe in private, scream about it, but that’s not how professional sport is set up. Spectators want answers, maybe even someone or something to blame, and post-mortems must be written and broadcast. So why, South Africa? What went wrong and when did it start?
“When we woke up,” Boucher said. “If you look at the way we started the game, our energies were low. Whether that’s because it’s a 10.30am game, and times have been quite difficult…”
He tailed off because, really. The morning start did present some different challenges through bounce and there will be some questions over South Africa’s decision to bowl first, but they had a plan. “We went through what this wicket plays like early morning. The history was that the wicket was a little bit cold and we decided to go in with the extra seamer and bowl first,” Boucher said. “We were looking to make a bit of inroads into their top order early doors and we just didn’t bowl well enough.”
And that’s where it will really hurt. Because South Africa’s attack, lauded as the best in the tournament thanks to their variety, were “outbowled”, as Boucher put it.
Only Anrich Nortje managed to beat the Dutch batters for pace, Wayne Parnell didn’t find swing, Lungi Ngidi’s change-ups were not as effective as they were in other matches, and Kagiso Rabada’s underwhelming tournament ended in an underwhelming performance. Among the frontline bowlers, he finished with the fewest wickets and the highest economy rate.
“It’s not the only upset that’s happened in the tournament. There’s been some very good sides that were beaten by the so-called lesser countries”
In contrast, Netherlands’ Brandon Glover dismissed Rilee Rossouw with the legcutter, for example, as the Dutch adapted better. “They read the conditions really well and they adapted quicker than we did and they made it tough for us,” Boucher said.
Still, a target of 159 was chaseable, even by a South Africa line-up carrying a captain who may have only just found a little bit of form. But South Africa failed to use the short, square boundary to their advantage while Netherlands caught well. Roelof van der Merwe’s running catch to dismiss David Miller was one of the grabs of the tournament and only stings more because van der Merwe is a South African, though it’s highly unlikely he would have been part of this squad.
“We didn’t bowl like we should have bowled but we didn’t bat like I thought we should have batted,” Boucher said. “The total that was put on for us was maybe a little more than we expected but one our batting unit could have chased down. We deserved to be better as a squad but it didn’t happen.”
That could be what South Africa need to zone in on: they felt they had earned the right to advance before they had gotten to that stage. “If you would have said to us, we’ve got Netherlands to play to get to a semi-final and you’ve got to beat them, we would have taken that,” Boucher admitted.
Chances are a lot of teams would have made that mistake if they had already come through the tougher games in their group and could see the knockouts beckoning. But if South Africa have learnt a lesson, it’s too late for this campaign.
For Boucher, who has been in this position as a player and now as a coach, it’s about moving on and accepting that they will return home without a World Cup. It may be easier for him, because he is leaving the team to take up a role with the Mumbai Indians.
“It’s not the only upset that’s happened in the tournament,” he said. “In T20 cricket, you can get on to a bit of a roll, one or two batters come off, create a bit of pressure, and this happens. There’s been some very good sides that were beaten by the so-called lesser countries.”
For the players, it’s about confronting the fact that another generation has been wounded and working quickly to ensure the scars do not settle too deep. Just this week, Faf du Plessis and Dale Steyn have spoken about how the 2015 semi-final loss took them almost a year to get over. South Africa can’t afford that, with the potential of 50-over World Cup Qualifiers looming in June and another World Cup less than 12 months away.
Boucher doesn’t think this group would be too affected even though “the more you don’t do well, it does start playing in your head”. And Bavuma suggested he would work to help the newer players get over it quickly. “It [the chokers’ tag] will always be there, until we find ourselves in a situation where we get to a final. But there’s elements of learning we could take from it, especially the younger guys,” Bavuma said. “For someone like (Tristan) Stubbs or Marco Jansen, it’s for them not to make the same mistakes. Unfortunately, that tag, we are still going to carry that monkey on our backs.”
At least, they don’t carry it alone anymore. As the sun rose over South Africa and the social-media apps were opened, it wasn’t anger that came through but a sense of resignation. Maybe it’s the same as the feeling that has come over the changeroom; the feeling that another one has got away and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. “This squad deserved to give themselves a better chance and it didn’t happen for us, which is very disappointing for me and every single guy in our dressing room,” Boucher said. And 60 million South Africans back home, too.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo’s South Africa correspondent