ICC World Twenty20 June 19, 2009

No choking but South Africa flunk big test


If Shahid Afridi always played like this, Garry Sobers might be nervously fretting over his place in the All-Time World XI © Associated Press

Farewell then, South Africa. An excellent campaign ended in failure – and within seconds, the choking accusations had begun. As sure as night follows day (but without even the intervening buffer of evening), as sure as headache follows headbutting a lamppost, as sure as, in my experience as a father, throwing food on the floor leads to the mother of your children saying, “Don’t throw food on the floor – you’re 34 now and supposed to be setting a good example,” as sure as all of these things, South Africa were accused of choking on the big occasion.

In all sports, when a team or player has acquired a reputation for choking, fairly or unfairly, any failure is habitually deemed a choke. South Africa’s track record of flunking big knock-out games goes before them, which is understandable, given the spectacular firework displays they have put on when exiting recent tournaments – all the more magnificent for the fact that the team habitually plays with studied focus and almost scientific precision. Seeing South Africa implode on the cricket field is thus akin to watching a normally sedate accountant turn feral and start barking at a filing cabinet after losing his favourite pencil.

However, yesterday, there was no choke. Twenty20 is barely long enough for a team to peruse the menu and order a tempting sandwich of whole sardines, peanuts and biro lids in floury seeded bread, let alone start eating and choking on it. South Africa did not field or bat especially well, but (a) Pakistan were good, (b) Shahid Afridi was exceptional, and, importantly, (c) Twenty20 is a capricious game and this tournament has proved that most teams can beat or lose to most others on a one-off basis.

Indeed, this very result, and the influence of Afridi, were both predicted in the latest Zaltzman Report audio show – listen to it here – along with my thoughts on the Super Eights, England’s Duckworth-Lewis difficulties and world exclusive news of the latest innovations in T20 strokeplay, including Dilshan’s as-yet-unseen Amateur Dentist Shot, in which he deliberately knocks out his own teeth. I hope you enjoy it. After predicting England to romp to a glorious victory over Netherlands in show 1, I am relieved that my reputation as cricket’s worst tipster has taken a dent.

South Africa had been impressive in their previous five games, but despite their victories, they had posted two low scores (including against India, the only other Asian team they faced, when they struggled to score off the spinners), they had not needed to chase a challenging score to win (batting second once previously, in reply to England’s honkingly useless 111), and, due to the success of their top order, their middle order had had little batting and, in Duminy’s case, it showed.

No choke then. They lost, and it happened to be a semi-final. And but for the incandescent Afridi, whose imperious all-round display made a total mockery of his overall career statistics, they might have won. If Afridi always played like this, Garry Sobers might be nervously fretting over his place in the All-Time World XI.

There cannot have been an easier Man-of-the-Match decision since the eight-year-old Andy Zaltzman walked off with the commemorative medallion and a cheque for 25 pence from a one-on-one game against his friend Donal, away from home, in Donal’s garden, with a tennis ball, a home-made bat, and a large tree as the stumps. 208 not out and 4 for 13 − what a display from the young Zaltzman, smashing 52 boundaries into the nearby flowerbed through the untended leg-side field, before taking the tennis ball and mercilessly exploiting the fact that his tearful, bored opponent had never previously played cricket.

(If I may digress a little, which, given that I am writing this under no supervision (the wife and kids are asleep), I may, there is an interesting comparison to be made with baseball. In cricket’s distant rogue third cousin, there are a similar number of ‘events’ as Twenty20 – an average of around 250-300 pitches per match, compared with up to 240 balls in T20, plus wides, no balls, and the possible effects of innumerate umpires. Results of individual matches are similarly unpredictable – a great major league baseball team will still lose more than a third of its matches, and a hopeless one will still win more than a third. It takes 162 regular-season games, plus up to 19 play-off matches, spanning seven months, for a team to win the MLB. The team winning the World Twenty20 will have played seven times. The brevity of the tournament has made it intense, unpredictable and exciting, but a strict meritocracy it is not. And there is a tendency to overanalyse the standard fluctuations of sport, and for some English commentators to ask momentous-sounding questions such as, “So, Graeme, where did it all go wrong?”, whilst desperately trying to suppress a snigger.)

Pakistan, for their part, stride onwards, one more Afridi masterclass away from completing a great, soul-warming story, and extending a giant metaphorical middle finger towards New Zealand’s inane mistaking of their own inability to hit the ball with the bats they had bought specifically for the purpose, for evidence of illegal tampering.

I expect Younis and his men to face Sri Lanka in the final. West Indies don’t have the bowlers to keep Sri Lanka quiet (unless they take early wickets), and, for all their batting depth, their struggles with Graeme Swann in recent months suggest they may also find Mendis and Murali a bridge too far and too confusing.

But, then again, if Gayle gets out of the right side of his bed ... if Sri Lanka lose early wickets and Dilshan successfully knocks his teeth out ... if Sarwan and Chanderpaul neutralise the mysteries of spin ... if stuff happens in a mildly unexpected manner as it always does in sport, and is then magnified by the shortness of the 20-over game ... who knows. Thank Zeus, and those who devised Twenty20, for the glorious unpredictability of unpredictability.

Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on the BBC Radio 4, and a writer