Tim de Lisle: Cronje baggage that weighed down Pollock now threatens Smith

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The South African cricket team can appear dull. The epithet that clings to them is dour, and when it is mid-afternoon in a Test match, their opponents are 170 for 3 and two burly seamers are aiming eight inches outside off stump, you can see why. But there is a side to them that is quite the opposite. Ever since they last came here, for the 1999 World Cup, they have been not so much a cricket team, more a Greek tragedy.

In that World Cup, they were honourable losers, good enough to tie with Australia in the semi-final. There were intimations of fecklessness, in Herschelle Gibbs's careless throw-up and the Klusener-Donald run-out, but the overall impression was of an excellent team who were horribly unlucky (their captain, Hansie Cronje, was given out caught that day for nought, off his boot). Lance Klusener was man of the tournament, and when South Africa entertained England in a five-Test series that winter, his power hitting was one of several reasons why the South Africans had the series wrapped up, 2-0, after four Tests.

They might have done better to be 1-1. That 2-0 lead encouraged Cronje, who did not lose his innate caution even when match-fixing, to promise a bookmaker that the rain-wrecked fifth Test would have a result. He struck an unprecedented deal with Nasser Hussain, reducing the game to a one-innings match, and England won. It was still a game of willow and leather: it was just that the leather included an expensive jacket. Cronje's bracelet was inscribed WWJD, supposedly meaning What Would Jesus Do. The J turned out to stand for Judas. He had become a sporting villain and a tragic hero, a distinguished man with one crucial flaw - in his case, greed.

But he was still an effective captain. He won a Test series in India, a formidable feat achieved by no modern Australian. When the Delhi police caught him talking to the bookies - hubris followed inevitably by nemesis - the South African establishment rushed to his defence. That was their first mistake. Then he resigned and they needed another captain in a hurry. They appointed Shaun Pollock, which was their second mistake. As the world's only new-ball bowling all-rounder, he already had too much to do; they chose him for PR reasons, because he was well known and clean.

Pollock did pretty well, considering that his duties as a spearhead virtually forced him to use the automatic pilot, and the new racial politics (a lot better than the old racial politics) required him to pick some players by quota. His own performances went from strength to strength: batting average 41, bowling 21. He lost five Tests as captain and won 14, including six out of six last winter, after the team had suffered the further jolt of Cronje's death in a plane crash. In January, despite having lost 3-0 and 2-1 to Australia, they went to the top of the International Cricket Council Test Championship. Pollock lifted the mace with a well-judged mixture of pride and sheepishness.

Then came the World Cup in South Africa, and you had to be there to see the forces at work, the damaged psyche of a nation with some terrible baggage. The tournament was promoted everywhere, and the keynote was not welcome, or inclusiveness, or spectacle, or excitement at the arrival of the world's great cricketers. It was jingoism. "Hello the Heroes!" yelled the billboards and press ads for MTN, the official mobile-phone supplier, with pictures not of Tendulkar or Lara, but Kallis and Klusener. "We fly them in", said the campaign for the official airline, SAA, "Polly sends them home".

The politicians were as bad as the businessmen. President Mbeki welcomed the team to his Cape Town residence, saying "I'm quite certain that you will progress through the tournament to the final match, which we will win." South Africa weren't even favourites, yet several other ministers echoed his refrain.

As the team sat on their coach to the games, with these foolish words ringing in their ears and the billboards flashing past, the pressure must have been unbearable. Kallis flopped, Klusener blew hot and cold, Donald and Jonty Rhodes limped into retirement (but not before announcing, inadvisedly, that they would win it for Hansie). When South Africa's group went down to the wire, the new coach, Eric Simons, misread the Duckworth-Lewis run chart. It was Polly who was sent home. National pride had come before a fall. Nemesis had not just struck again, she had developed a cruel sense of humour.

The South African sports hierarchy, who had made Pollock's life so difficult, blamed him. In eight weeks, he had gone from lifting the mace to getting the sack. Once again, they appointed the next captain for the wrong reasons. In their desperation to banish the lingering stench of Cronje, they jumped a generation to Graeme Smith, aged 22. Feisty, outspoken and bursting with ambition, he has the personality but not the experience. He needs a few years in the ranks, to cool down, grow up and collect some know-how.

Seldom has a chalice been so obviously poisoned. In ancient Athens, tragedies were presented in threes. The saga is unlikely to end here.

Tim de Lisle is editor of Wisden Cricketers' Almanack 2003.