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June 19, 2009
Jeremy Snape, South Africa's sports psychologist and performance coach, hopes Thursday's dispiriting World Twenty20 semi-final defeat will not compound the pressure on a team yet to cast off its "choker" tag, but rather serve as motivation for future series.
The South Africans wasted little time in decamping from England following the seven-run loss to Pakistan, boarding a Johannesburg-bound flight on Friday morning. The sting of defeat that accompanied them onto the plane will likely linger until their next international assignment - the Champions Trophy in October - and Snape is determined to channel those emotions constructively.
But the task is great. Despite winning a record seven consecutive Twenty20 matches entering Thurday's match at Trent Bridge, South Africa were constricted through the middle stages of their innings and eventually fell seven runs short of Pakistan's relatively modest 149 for 4. The expressions on the South Africans' faces ranged from astonishment to dejection, and Graeme Smith, the captain, faced the inevitable questions relating to choking at the post-match press conference.
Snape conceded that, with the benefit of hindsight, South Africa's batsmen might have adopted a different approach through the middle overs - they were limited to just 34 runs between the sixth and 13th overs - but insisted the sublime bowling of Shahid Afridi and Saeed Ajmal, and not a fragile South African mindset, was the determining factor in the match.
"We were so close to doing something very special," Snape told Cricinfo. "I personally wouldn't lump this result in with others from the past. The guys are hurting. They're getting ready to get on a plane when they thought they'd be getting ready for a final. We have to make sure the hurt is channelled in a way that it fuels us for the future, and makes our bowling more precise in the nets, our fielding drills more clinical.
"Obviously, the players were nervous. It's a big game and that's natural. There's nothing I could say that could stop that. We did not play badly, and I certainly wouldn't say we choked. We came up against an incredibly good Pakistan team. They made the finals of this tournament last time and have some incredibly dangerous players. Afridi produced his best best game of the year and had a huge impact on the outcome.
"On reflection, perhaps the guys might have tried different things. But we were also sticking to our gameplan, and it's usually unlikely that someone will be able to consistently bowl six yorkers in a row. [Umar] Gul's execution was more precise than anyone we'd faced in the tournament. In hindsight, maybe we could have been more innovative against him, but there's also the whole issue of wickets in hand to consider. Every team is continually learning in this format and we are probably no exception."
Pakistan were indeed in magnificent form throughout the semi-final, managing a competitive total on a slow Trent Bridge pitch and defending it with their best fielding performance of the tournament. The power and improvisation displayed by Afridi against Johan Botha stood in stark contrast to the rigidity and orthodoxy of the South African batsmen against Pakistan's spinners. Their efforts kept South Africa well below the required run-rate, and Gul's metronomical accuracy at the death ended the tophy aspirations of Smith's men.
The brilliance of Pakistan tempered the media's reaction to South Africa's unexpected exit. Still, the South Africans will be ruing the missed opportunity to rid themselves of the choker tag, and must now brace for another barrage of questions relating to their mental strength ahead of the Champions Trophy.
"We had a chat in the dressing rooms after the game," Snape said. "At the end of the day people will remember tournaments for the trophies won. We have to make sure that the hurt of this disappointment fuels our drive and execution for series to come.
"We'll be ready for the next tournament and face up to the pressure again. The [Champions Trophy] is in South Africa, which is a big bonus. We're confident we can go one stage further on home soil in the next tournament."