Every time I see South Africa crashing out of ICC Tournaments, I find myself placed amidst the conundrums of existentialist thoughts. I’ve always admired the way the Proteas go about their business, and my unequivocal backing was justified when AB De Villiers took over the skipper’s mantle.
Though neither wholly innocent nor wholly naïve, he admitted to his team giving their ‘very best, but simply not good enough’, albeit losing to a better unit those days. In simple words, the Proteas had complied with every facet guaranteeing victory but the opposition had more check boxes to tick – which they did in its entirety.
All this, AB dealt with persuasively – a reminiscence of what prior captains have done at the end of ICC tournaments. But for a change, his odiousness towards his team being referred to as ‘Chokers’ has taken a reversing – he’s been blatant enough to admit that the dubious tag being carried may have some substance behind its origins. Had it not been for their large funds of astonishing scorecards, history would have judged them more kindly.
History hasn’t judged me kindly either – I’m always at the receiving end of cheeky texts whenever the South Africans choke. I’ve backed them ever since I started following cricket. And when times become hard (and let me point out that I back Liverpool FC), I’m always asked that obnoxiously unanswerable question: Why?
If I were to let my mind navigate around thoughts with respect to a profession I choose, I’m quite certain that such anxiety would’ve compelled me to have considered chronic job-hopping. But sport is different – and that is what makes it unique. In sport, it isn’t ideal to subscribe to the “love your job, not your company” philosophy – the minute you embed yourself to supporting a team, it is a bond that none can break.
As an Indian, I find it natural to support my nation at the International Stage. And as the old cliché goes, you can’t choose your relatives but you can choose your friends. That is one of the reasons so much of what I have come to think of as logical and passionate support was really worked out during the first few years of my exposure to sport.
I was drawn in to admiring the South Africans primarily because their fielding unit stood out from the rest. As kids, we naturally incline towards worshipping players who defy gravity to exhibit stunning catches – and the South Africans were (and still are) the best in the business. And what sticks to your mind as a kid, sticks for a long time to come – even the antics of Hansie Cronje didn’t deter me away from rooting for the South Africans – apart from India that is.
Following them has taken me through the high of witnessing a record ODI chase accomplished, and sink through the perils of D/L Math extracts that caused enough offence to sack Shaun Pollock in 2003. And their laconic trysts in the latter stages of ICC Tournaments still continue to bemuse many. Is it really as much a case of pressure as it is about ill-luck? Not always. Innings collapses aren’t necessarily what the doctor orders – it is what they have brought on to themselves. Only a D/L sheet with numbers as illegible as a doctor’s prescription would’ve caused the fiasco of 2003.
I was fortunate to meet Dr. Peter Kremer, a former Sports Psychologist with the Victoria State Cricket Association, during my stay in Sri Lanka. We met at the Premadasa during the game between Ireland and Australia. I never got a chance to talk to him about South Africa, but I do recall him mentioning a particular challenge he’d consistently faced during his tenure – players getting in to their comfort zones. The easiest thing, he said, was for a player to throw his hands up, admit that he isn’t good enough to sustain at higher levels, and continue to ply his trade in familiar waters.
Now before you read between the lines here, I don’t mean to say that the South Africans have almost swallowed a sense of inevitability that they could be the best team around without an ICC Trophy in their cabinet. You cannot question their effort, or commitment. But their ability to react to pressure has been under constant scrutiny.
You might not like the physics of gravity but you can’t change the fact that objects fall to the ground because of it. Likewise, if the Proteas cannot find a way to embrace pressure (and expectations), that elusive treasure – spelt an ICC Trophy – could be very hard to come by. I’m not qualified enough to comment on their methods, given that from a thousand miles away, I’ve got very little exposure to their system. But a consistent run of familiar collapses, less true this particular tournament given that they were straight-forward ‘KO’ed, only raises further question marks.
The current system, which is certainly better than the alternatives that seemed to have propped up during the transition stage, has undergone changes, and with Gary Kirsten at the helm, they have a player who has tasted ultimate glory as coach. Kirsten’s methods in India are well documented – he focused on three things: simplicity, simplicity and simplicity. And when you tend to fragment issues that appear complex on face value, the constituents are largely simple. His record of 0-9 in Super Eight matches with India and South Africa now in three World T20s is a cause of concern and he will be the first to know. You can expect him and his crew to have analysed selection, approach and mindset from these games to be better prepared in two years’ time.
In Hashim Amla, they have undoubtedly one of the most polished batsmen (all three formats included) in International Cricket. He hasn’t looked out of place in any of the formats over the best part of the last two years. He exudes a certain class that few men possess, and a temperament that even fewer share. I’ve written about de Villiers before and my opinion on AB hasn’t changed – I would only wish that South Africa find a ‘full-time’ wicketkeeper in Tests, for AB is too valuable a batsman to suffer from the excess baggage of having to keep in Tests. But again, Test Cricket is out of context given the theme of this piece.
Similarly, the bowling department boasts of the most lethal fast bowler in international cricket, ably supported by resources who wouldn’t find it hard to walk in to the playing XI of other nations. Their bag of big hitters – from David Miller to Albie Morkel – is aptly full, and their spin department could do with a bit more flair. Tahir, at best, has looked average when compared to his counterparts from around the world. If there is an inert area of concern, it is only the quality of their spin bowling.
Kirsten’s box of worries appear complex when judged on face value, but when you break it up in to pieces, the end result is a list of fifteen odd players possessing immense talent. They have performed cohesively as a unit – they’ve won dramatic games together, and they’ve crashed out of tournaments together. They’ve performed well at home, and they’ve performed better (in some cases) away from home. What they’ve probably not done is to avoid playing the game of dominos together.
But the camouflage could well be the fact that the team isn’t greater than the sum of the individual parts. And that, ultimately, is Kirsten’s challenge.