Yaaay! Kagiso Rabada celebrates the wicket of Glenn Maxwell of Australia in the Proteas’ last game at the 2019 Cricket World Cup. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/CLIVE MASON
Yaaay! Kagiso Rabada celebrates the wicket of Glenn Maxwell of Australia in the Proteas’ last game at the 2019 Cricket World Cup. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/CLIVE MASON

The Proteas’ World Cup campaign can be summarised by telling the story of a wink.

The wink was Quinton de Kock’s, the occasion the last game of the Proteas’ campaign, against Australia at Old Trafford on Saturday.

The recipient of the wink was Kagiso Rabada, who had just bowled the snorter that Australia’s Glenn Maxwell top-edged to De Kock, who climbed with remarkable agility to take a sublime catch. Returning to earth, the catch safely pouched, De Kock issued the wink.

De Kock’s wink is worth considering in more detail. Winks are full of mischief. They speak, too, of poise and self-confidence, even swagger. They contain a pinch of je ne sais quoi.

In winking at his mate, Rabada, De Kock was, in effect, saying: "Hey, this is easy. We can do it. Never mind that we’re playing against the Aussies, our old enemies, we can handle it. We’ll win."

Which the Proteas duly did, by 10 runs, to give them their third win of the competition, behind victories against Afghanistan and Sri Lanka and a share of the spoils against the West Indies in a rain-abandoned game.

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With seven points, they finished in seventh position, which is about where they deserve to be in the contemporary cricket hierarchy.

All too often in this campaign, however, the Proteas didn’t wink. They literally didn’t wink and they didn’t wink figuratively. They were rigid and frightened. They didn’t laugh or appear to enjoy themselves very much, and they played the kind of watchful, constricted cricket that was congruent with their fear.

But come the business end of the tournament, when ordinarily they’d be grappling for a place in the semi-finals, and they suddenly relaxed, found their flair and their rhythm.

Hashim Amla laughed during his big partnership with Faf du Plessis in the win against Sri Lanka. Du Plessis himself, after failing throughout to score a definitive innings, reeled off a fine 100 against Australia. Rassie van der Dussen, after starting slowly, scored 95 in that self-same match, being caught by Maxwell off the last ball of the innings as he sought the six that would have given him a deserved hundred.

When there was nothing left to lose, the Proteas suddenly discovered themselves. They ended the tournament playing attractive, consistent cricket, giving the best of themselves, believing in themselves and enjoying the spectacle of an English summer.

Which is, of course, the way they should have started, except they couldn’t start with the self-confidence with which they finished because at the beginning of the tournament they were spooked. They were spooked by their own and the nation’s expectations. They were spooked by the tradition of Proteas’ failures in World Cups.

And, finally, they were spooked by having not the slightest idea of what to do about being spooked.

With the Proteas returning home on Monday, coach Ottis Gibson made much of him and his support staff not having enough time to prepare the team for this tournament. He has also spoken about the World Cup loss to Pakistan as being personally disappointing.

With due respect to Gibson, by all accounts a decent and likeable man, you rather feel that he is sweating the small stuff. What the cricket system really needs is to find a way of addressing otherwise fine cricketers’ fear.

Address the fear of failure — the bedrock psychological state the Proteas enter at times such as these — and other things suddenly become more manageable. You can deal with injuries and lapses of form. You can deal with the tedium of a long tournament.

Appoint a team psychologist; have a clearing-of-the-air get-together where the players are frank about their fears. Try to narrow the chasm that exists between the authoritarian and frankly vindictive administrators and the team and you will be dealing with the fears.

It is these administrators, cowards that they are, that were nowhere to be seen when the Proteas arrived home on Monday. It was they who appointed Gibson; it was they who failed to negotiate leave for some of the players from this year’s Indian Premier League, which would have allowed them time to recover.

And now they want everyone but themselves to be accountable. It just doesn’t stack up.