November 29, 2013

South Africa's unexpected asphyxiation syndrome

Disbelief, mild anger and prickly embarrassment in a good old-fashioned choke

"You hug me any tighter and I'm going to choke" © Associated Press

Across two continents, in three formats, wearing two different shades of green, the superheroes of South Africa and Pakistan have been locked in an exhausting cricket struggle for what has felt like most of the year. Not since India and Sri Lanka last bored one another senseless have so many cricket followers logged onto ESPNcricinfo, raised their eyebrows and exclaimed, "For the love of all that's holy, not these two AGAIN!"

The people who construct the Future Tours Programme clearly think that the internet has shrunk our attention spans to goldfish-like proportions:

"Well I thoroughly enjoyed watching South Africa against Pakistan in Dubai. Oh look, there's a picture of a kitten wearing a tie, with an amusing caption. How adorable! What's on tomorrow? I see Pakistan are touring South Africa. That should be a good series."

By Wednesday, the score in 2013 was 14-7 to South Africa, but the 22nd instalment in this soap opera was the best yet. Pakistan had scored a healthy, rosy-cheeked 262, but South Africa were racing along nicely like a family of wildebeests who had left a day early to get to the next watering hole and were consequently well ahead of the herd.

With the required run rate down to less than a run a ball, Amla and Duminy knew what they had to do. Tap the ball into a gap, stroll and repeat until the thing was won.

Yet it was at this point that JP began to show symptoms of Unexpected South African Asphyxiation Syndrome. With 11 to get, he tried to score them all at once with a billionaire's swing at Ajmal. This was a little panicky, and the panic spread through the team like the rumour of an approaching eagle through a meerkat colony.

First there was mild panic, as Amla tried but failed to nudge the ball into the off side. Mild panic became moderate panic next ball as he cleared his leg out of the way, had a swing and bunted the ball into the ground. Finally, we witnessed full-blown severe panic as Hashim swiped the ball up into the air like a man who had never nudged a single in his life.

"Ah, this ball is going to land safe," said the commentator, which to those of us who could see two players converging underneath it seemed an unnecessarily harsh verdict on Pakistan's fielding standards. Unnecessarily harsh and inaccurate, as it turned out, because the ball didn't land safely, it landed in Hafeez's hands.

With only nine runs to play with, you might think the next bowler would be a tad nervous, but Junaid was full of beans as he ran in to bowl the last over, giving a little leap at the start of his run-up, like a newborn lamb enjoying a frolic in the outfield.

South Africa on the other hand were utterly bean-less. David Miller offered a wild swing like a golfer who had forgotten mid-stroke how to play golf. Duminy, having failed to hit his previous delivery for 11, decided that a nine was definitely on and holed out.

Ryan McLaren came in, but it made no difference. By this stage, big booming boundaries were required, but all he and Miller could manage were feeble singles. They were like unwitting contestants in some dodgy fairground sideshow, where the game is rigged so that no matter how hard you swing, you have no chance of winning a teddy bear.

The cameras lingered on spectators covering their faces with their collars, which I presume is the South African way of registering that unique cocktail of ripe disbelief, mild anger and prickly embarrassment that comes with a good old-fashioned choke, and the commentators came over a little Lady Haversham as they tried to convey their surprise.

Commentator 1: South Africa would have felt that they had the game in the bag
Commentator 2: Well, it was in the bag!

Off the last ball, with South Africa needing a six, Junaid fired the ball past Miller's big toe, past the bat and past the wicketkeeper, and we witnessed the unusual spectacle of fielders celebrating wildly as the ball hurtled to the boundary.

So, well done, Misbah. Everyone likes to have a grumble about the old boy, and apparently even the Taliban don't rate him, but he's captained Pakistan to victory in a one-day series against South Africa, and he's the only man on the planet who has.

Andrew Hughes is a writer currently based in England. He tweets here

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