Nobody had greater hopes and expectations than AB de Villiers when the Proteas arrived in Sri Lanka three weeks ago and nobody was more disappointed.
The captain was dissapointed when the team packed their bags on Wednesday afternoon, leaving the host nation, Pakistan, Australia and the West Indies to contest the semi-finals.
Coach Gary Kirsten and his management team could not have done more to prepare the team before the ICC World T20 and the players most certainly lacked nothing in determination or effort. This leads to the unfortunate conclusion that they were simply not good enough. It would have been better, perhaps, to have had an alternative, "legitimate" reason for failure.
The most obvious reason is the one least acceptable to South Africa's voraciously demanding supporters: the management team and eight of the players have been on the road for more than three months. It has been written before and it will be written again, but it will never change some opinions. Sports science has proven that individual performances begin an inevitable decline at some point after the sixth week away from home. There are individuals who buck the trend, but they are the exceptions that prove the rule.
Of all those who mock professional sportsmen with "ag shame" sarcasm on the subject of time away from home, it can be guaranteed that none has spent more than a week away from their own home, whether it be in a mansion or a caravan.
Judgment becomes affected and the best decisions are not always made. There could be no greater example of that than De Villiers talking on the eve of the final super eight game against India. But first, let us rewind five years to when the brilliant youngster was averaging in the mid-20s after 20 one-day internationals. "I haven't made a great start to my one-day career, but don't judge me now. Have a look at my record when I've played 100 games," he said.
In print it may have looked cocky. Who has the right to assume they will play 100 games after a modest start? But it was not. It was merely confidence and belief – born from the knowledge that he was different. We called it "exceptional".
Sure enough, after his own "deadline" he was averaging close to 50 and was ranked in the world's top three, having long since ended questions over his value in the team.
Fast-forward to 2012: "I don't think I need to be batting in the top order; we have world-class players there and we back them. My record in T20 cricket is not very good – you can look it up. I just try to make an impact somewhere. That's what I do."
It was pitiful. All the sceptics who said he would never be able to handle wicketkeeping, captaining and being the best batsman were rubbing their hands together in delight. But why celebrate? The best limited-overs batsman in South Africa is doubting himself and his countrymen are happy? The irresistible force of De Villiers's personality and belief was being squeezed to the point of strong self-doubt and people were saying, "I told you so!" What's good about that?
De Villiers is not just one of South Africa's best limited-overs batsmen – he is almost certainly the best. Just a cursory glance at the batting line-ups of the other seven major cricketing nations would indicate that South Africa's vision is either so far ahead of its time as to be out of sight, or lagging a long way behind. Everyone else realised some time ago that their best batsmen need to be in the top three. That De Villiers believes he should languish down the order is proof that cabin fever has affected everyone.
Albie Morkel is the most experienced T20 match player in the world – twice an Indian Premier League winner with the Chennai Super Kings and worth millions of dollars on the auction market. Yet in 42 games for his country he has faced an average of nine deliveries. On Tuesday against India he batted below Robin Peterson. What message is sent to him? Good to slog a few deliveries, but no better than that.
His bowling has always been a second string to his bow, never an equal first. Yet South Africa have stubbornly persisted with the view that an all-rounder must do an allrounder's job. Nonsense. If a "floatation" system can work so well in the batting middle order of the ODI side, why can it not spread to all facets of the T20 side?
There was a stubborn stagnation in Sri Lanka that was hard to stomach. Yes, T20 cricket can be broken down into its component parts, but these do change. Targets can be set for each section of the innings, but they change. Watching South Africa's batsmen leave deliveries and mangle their attempts to take singles was wretched. A single off a spinner with just four men in the circle? How hard should that be for a well-paid professional? Have we forgotten the Jonty Rhodes era? Each ball is a run waiting to happen. Each ball is a contest. Why choose not to compete?
As De Villiers admitted: "We have a lot to work on and we have to get a lot better."
Buck up, AB, and ditch the self-doubt
Wilting from road weariness, it is clear that the Proteas had hit stagnation mode in Sri Lanka.