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Being firmly in the neutral corner, I’m going to show rare bravado and put in my two cents worth about South Africa. I suspect my fellow blogger Stephen Gelb will respond by cutting me down, but it might make for an interesting debate.
South Africa is the most predictable team in both forms of the game, Tests and ODI’s. Apart from when they play against the minnows of Bangladesh or Zimbabwe, I reckon their performances can be predicted with some certainty.
Ironically, their Test cricket is almost the mirror opposite of their one-day cricket. On-field pressure is one thing but South Africa seem to have a major problem with coping with the hype and pressure that comes before a major event. The great tragedy is that a lot of it is self-inflicted. South Africa seem to fall on their own sword, often unable to meet their own benchmark standards imposed on themselves, by themselves. Countries like Australia love building them up before a major series, love watching the South Africans work themselves up into a frenzy and then choking on the fumes of their own gas truck.
In Test cricket, their much vaunted pace attack often fails to deliver in the opening Test match of a series. The recent Lords Test aside, Edgbaston in 1998 was one example when both Donald and Pollock got over-anxious on their ‘home ground’ (Warwickshire) and bowled poorly on a green pitch that should have suited them down to the ground. England was 249/1 at the end of play on Day 1.
The more they talk themselves up before a Test Series, the less likely they are to fulfil that potential in the first Test. Port Elizabeth 2004 v England, Cape Town 2006 v Australia, Johannesburg 2006 v India and Port Elizabeth 2007 v West Indies are all cases in point. South Africa was either favoured to win or rated themselves highly before each of those matches.
Their performances in the last Test of a series is markedly better, almost as if they are relieved to be playing without the burden of their own expectations. Their start to the current England series is following that exact pattern. Once the hype was extinguished at Lords, they fought back to salvage a brave draw and then won handsomely at Headingley. They will probably go on to win the series unless someone tells them that they are favourites again!.
In ODI cricket, especially in big tournaments, South Africa seems to react to pressure in much the same way but they take the gas at the end instead when they get to crucial knock-out games. When there’s no pressure at the start, they cruise through the early rounds and then falter once they firm as favourites. An obvious exception to this is their loss to West Indies in Cape Town in the first game of the 2003 World Cup but even here is a symmetry. Big occasion, home World Cup, favoured to win ... and what happens?
On the other hand, one only needs to look at their stunning re-entry to world cricket at the 1992 World Cup and marvel at their giant-killing deeds when no one really fancied their chances. No pressure, no expectation and they almost made it through to the Final but for a ridiculous rain rule.
Perhaps anyone with an understanding of the South African cricket mentality can help us make sense of this. It’s happened too often to be a coincidence so there must be something going on in the South African psyche that inhibits them wearing the tag of ‘favourite’ with any comfort.
Which then begs the question – why do they keep talking themselves up before an important series or a crucial knock-out game? One thing’s for sure – they seem to fight back well from a bad start. If only they could lead from the front and finish with a major trophy. Their world champion rugby team knows how to do exactly that!
Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in BrisbaneFeeds: Michael Jeh
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Born in Colombo, educated at Oxford and now living in Brisbane, Michael Jeh (Fox) is a cricket lover with a global perspective on the game. An Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, he is a Playing Member of the MCC and still plays grade cricket. Michael now works closely with elite athletes, and is passionate about youth intervention programmes. He still chases his boyhood dream of running a wildlife safari operation called Barefoot in Africa.