England v South Africa, Champions Trophy, 1st semi-final, The Oval June 18, 2013

Another chance to shed baggage

11

One of cricket's more poignant memories is Graeme Smith's glance at the sky after a valiant but ultimately fruitless century in a Champions Trophy match in 2009. He had battled cramp, and been refused a runner, but marched to 141 before being dismissed by Stuart Broad. It was obvious Smith was battling tears and losing. So were South Africa.

Chasing 324 to win, South Africa were 274 for 9 after Smith fell, and had 19 balls to score 50. The game was up. England were through.

It's another war story of another team who have put South Africa out of a major tournament. Its another case of underachievement. Another choke. And the best (or worst, depending on how you measure these things) of the lot. It was dignified. It was heroic. And it hurt.

Since then, South Africa have been dumped out of other major tournaments and their pain has only increased. Centurion 2009 stings no more than St Lucia 2010, Dhaka 2011 or Colombo 2012. What South Africa do not want is to add London 2013 to the list.

Since Gary Kirsten took over as coach, they've approached major tournaments in a more open-minded fashion and embraced the label they once shunned. AB de Villiers seems to be able to say the word "choker," a million times a minute, just to underline he is not afraid to spit it out unprompted. He has even extended his use of it, applying it to different situations and different teams.

"I believe all teams choke in certain situations. It's just we somehow managed to get that tag behind our names," he said. He may have meant Sri Lanka, who have been in the last two World Cup finals and lost, or England, who have yet to win a fifty-over tournament, but those are mere details when compared with why South Africa are the team that have been branded this way.

Quite simply, because they have always had a unit capable of winning and they have always come up with ways not to win. As recently as Friday last week, they almost did it again. South Africa were one ball away from a flight home and know that if they are to find themselves on an airplane before Monday, they will be stuck with the same questions, again. "Unless we win this tournament, people will say we're chokers," de Villiers said. Damn right, too.

This time, South Africa claim to have worked on ways to deal with pressure. "The most important thing there is to expect the unexpected. We know it's going to happen. We know the pressure will be there," he said. "It's something we learned from Mike Horn leading up to this tournament: always expect what you don't think is going to happen."

That seems a sound philosophy apart from one thing: if something is unexpected, it can't be anticipated, and if it is then they are no longer expecting the unexpected. Be that as it may, de Villiers means South Africa are trying to prepare for anything, even the things they don't know they should be preparing for.

They're doing that by ensuring the camp is as relaxed and happy as possible. Few would argue that South Africa appear the best managed team in world cricket at the moment. Controversy seldom follows them. They don't have bar brawls, they don't get into problems with girls, and they don't make the papers for big nights on the town.

Even their most exciting outing so far - the Rihanna concert at Twickenham on Sunday night - was preceded by a morning in church. They spend their days tending to babies and their nights having quiet dinners with their wives and the occasional double date with a team-mate and his wife. In other words, they do on tour what they would do at home because Kirsten lets them.

De Villiers said that "allowed us to free up our minds and really just show our skills under pressure." Whether the latter is a result of the former will never be scientifically proven but South Africa believe it is. So far, their results agree. Even though they are in the semi-finals because luck went their way, the strength of their performance in the other two matches would suggest they deserve to be among the final four, certainly more than Pakistan or West Indies did.

They're talking the same talk they do before any major tournament knockout and saying things like, "we've had two big games and we didn't choke there," and "we know what we're capable of as a team. We're in a very good space." But all de Villiers' rhetoric will count for nothing unless South Africa push on to Birmingham, and then to the trophy. Unless they get there, what happens tomorrow will just be another memory, and another heartache.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Rahul_78 on June 19, 2013, 5:14 GMT

    SAF big test will come in the final if they manage to reach there. Irrespective of what happened in WI game the dreaded 'C' word will not go away until they win this tournament. SAF will face England in semis and India or Lanka in finals if they make it. Cook, MSD and Angelo will leave no stone upturned to remind them of their history of failures in big ICC events. Opposition would like to take a leaf out of Kiwis book from last world cup quarter finals. The task will be mighty for AB today with full house of pumped up English supporters cheering the home team and jeering the Proteas. This has less to do with SAF cricketing skills and more to do with their state of mind. It is a voodoo and it has to be broken some day..sooner the better for Proteas.

  • Santokieleftarmspinner on June 19, 2013, 9:24 GMT

    South Africa were chokers but after last Friday West Indies have taken that title! Game in the bag and thrown away. Why did no-one call them chokers? With this team of relative nobodies, making the semi-finals is like winning the whole thing!

  • AlbertPintoGussaHua on June 19, 2013, 9:16 GMT

    @SurlyCynic ... No it does not matter, just like any other sporting event or even the Olympics. It's just a show for entertainment, like watching a movie. Still a lot of people get so attached to the outcome, to forget the whole thing a few weeks later. So just enjoy the moment while it lasts. Win or lose, ultimately its just a [silly] game. ;-)

  • mahjut on June 19, 2013, 8:42 GMT

    Rahul_78. Every team whether playing SA or not should take a leaf out of the NZ book that game. Stay in the game and build pressure and you have every chance of winning the game - completely irrespective of who you're playing.

  • ajithabey on June 19, 2013, 8:32 GMT

    Let there be a full days cricket and may the better team make it to the finals. If D/L comes into play, cricket will be the loser playing a major international tournament in fickle weather conditions. Good luck to both teams in this outing.

  • mahjut on June 19, 2013, 8:27 GMT

    not at all surprised the 'features comment' features Choking ... of course, they've already had two knock out games - you guys know that right? and they are NOT one of the tourney favourites - in fact in the knock out games they've won they beat two of the top five fancied teams and possibly the second most fancied in their comfort zone of T20 (well, it was closer to a T20 than an ODI)

  • on June 19, 2013, 6:00 GMT

    Sri Lankan's are definitely not chokers. They lost the final against the Aussies in W.Indies due to some shoddy umpiring. They were forced to bat in near darkness, when the rules clearly specified that they could have continued the game on the reserve day. Also Gilchrist had some aid from a squash ball in his batting glove, which was totally unfair and was definitely against the spirit of sportsmanship. In the last world cup final against India, they were beaten by the better team on the day, with magnificent batting by Gambir and Dhoni. Also it did not help that Angelo Matthews got injured in the semi which meant that SL had to make 3 changes for the final which upset the balance of the team, not to mention the political interference in team selections. T20 is a lottery at best and Malinga had a bad day and Samuels took him to the cleaners while Sunil Narine mesmerised the batsmen. SL lost these 3 finals- true, but that does not make them chokers. SA ....definitely maybe.

  • gibbs.175 on June 19, 2013, 0:32 GMT

    Hi SA fans...this is another rare chance.....SA should play as a unit all 11 should try their best...restrict England from every corner,,,do not depend on a single hand(DALE) he is the best ,,,let him play free....good luck

  • SurlyCynic on June 18, 2013, 22:02 GMT

    I'm enjoying this tournament (despite the frustrating weather), and the shorter format with quality teams makes it a good challenge.

    But does winning the Champions Trophy really mean that much in the long run? Most people on these boards keep stating that SA have never won an ICC tournament, forgetting that they won the first Champions Trophy. Its not easy to recall all the winners, and it's about to be discontinued.

    So I'm not trying to knock the tournament, just wonder whether it really matters that much.

  • on June 18, 2013, 19:51 GMT

    Sri Lankan's are definitely not chokers. They lost the final against the Aussies in W.Indies due to some shoddy umpiring. They were forced to bat in near darkness, when the rules clearly specified that they could have continued the game on the reserve day. Also Gilchrist had some aid from a squash ball in his batting glove, which was totally unfair and was definitely against the spirit of sportsmanship. In the last world cup final against India, they were beaten by the better team on the day, with magnificent batting by Gambir and Dhoni. Also it did not help that Angelo Matthews got injured in the semi which meant that SL had to make 3 changes for the final which upset the balance of the team, not to mention the political interference in team selections. T20 is a lottery at best and Malinga had a bad day and Samuels took him to the cleaners while Sunil Narine mesmerised the batsmen. SL lost these 3 finals- true, but that does not make them chokers. SA ....definitely maybe.

  • Rahul_78 on June 19, 2013, 5:14 GMT

    SAF big test will come in the final if they manage to reach there. Irrespective of what happened in WI game the dreaded 'C' word will not go away until they win this tournament. SAF will face England in semis and India or Lanka in finals if they make it. Cook, MSD and Angelo will leave no stone upturned to remind them of their history of failures in big ICC events. Opposition would like to take a leaf out of Kiwis book from last world cup quarter finals. The task will be mighty for AB today with full house of pumped up English supporters cheering the home team and jeering the Proteas. This has less to do with SAF cricketing skills and more to do with their state of mind. It is a voodoo and it has to be broken some day..sooner the better for Proteas.

  • Santokieleftarmspinner on June 19, 2013, 9:24 GMT

    South Africa were chokers but after last Friday West Indies have taken that title! Game in the bag and thrown away. Why did no-one call them chokers? With this team of relative nobodies, making the semi-finals is like winning the whole thing!

  • AlbertPintoGussaHua on June 19, 2013, 9:16 GMT

    @SurlyCynic ... No it does not matter, just like any other sporting event or even the Olympics. It's just a show for entertainment, like watching a movie. Still a lot of people get so attached to the outcome, to forget the whole thing a few weeks later. So just enjoy the moment while it lasts. Win or lose, ultimately its just a [silly] game. ;-)

  • mahjut on June 19, 2013, 8:42 GMT

    Rahul_78. Every team whether playing SA or not should take a leaf out of the NZ book that game. Stay in the game and build pressure and you have every chance of winning the game - completely irrespective of who you're playing.

  • ajithabey on June 19, 2013, 8:32 GMT

    Let there be a full days cricket and may the better team make it to the finals. If D/L comes into play, cricket will be the loser playing a major international tournament in fickle weather conditions. Good luck to both teams in this outing.

  • mahjut on June 19, 2013, 8:27 GMT

    not at all surprised the 'features comment' features Choking ... of course, they've already had two knock out games - you guys know that right? and they are NOT one of the tourney favourites - in fact in the knock out games they've won they beat two of the top five fancied teams and possibly the second most fancied in their comfort zone of T20 (well, it was closer to a T20 than an ODI)

  • on June 19, 2013, 6:00 GMT

    Sri Lankan's are definitely not chokers. They lost the final against the Aussies in W.Indies due to some shoddy umpiring. They were forced to bat in near darkness, when the rules clearly specified that they could have continued the game on the reserve day. Also Gilchrist had some aid from a squash ball in his batting glove, which was totally unfair and was definitely against the spirit of sportsmanship. In the last world cup final against India, they were beaten by the better team on the day, with magnificent batting by Gambir and Dhoni. Also it did not help that Angelo Matthews got injured in the semi which meant that SL had to make 3 changes for the final which upset the balance of the team, not to mention the political interference in team selections. T20 is a lottery at best and Malinga had a bad day and Samuels took him to the cleaners while Sunil Narine mesmerised the batsmen. SL lost these 3 finals- true, but that does not make them chokers. SA ....definitely maybe.

  • gibbs.175 on June 19, 2013, 0:32 GMT

    Hi SA fans...this is another rare chance.....SA should play as a unit all 11 should try their best...restrict England from every corner,,,do not depend on a single hand(DALE) he is the best ,,,let him play free....good luck

  • SurlyCynic on June 18, 2013, 22:02 GMT

    I'm enjoying this tournament (despite the frustrating weather), and the shorter format with quality teams makes it a good challenge.

    But does winning the Champions Trophy really mean that much in the long run? Most people on these boards keep stating that SA have never won an ICC tournament, forgetting that they won the first Champions Trophy. Its not easy to recall all the winners, and it's about to be discontinued.

    So I'm not trying to knock the tournament, just wonder whether it really matters that much.

  • on June 18, 2013, 19:51 GMT

    Sri Lankan's are definitely not chokers. They lost the final against the Aussies in W.Indies due to some shoddy umpiring. They were forced to bat in near darkness, when the rules clearly specified that they could have continued the game on the reserve day. Also Gilchrist had some aid from a squash ball in his batting glove, which was totally unfair and was definitely against the spirit of sportsmanship. In the last world cup final against India, they were beaten by the better team on the day, with magnificent batting by Gambir and Dhoni. Also it did not help that Angelo Matthews got injured in the semi which meant that SL had to make 3 changes for the final which upset the balance of the team, not to mention the political interference in team selections. T20 is a lottery at best and Malinga had a bad day and Samuels took him to the cleaners while Sunil Narine mesmerised the batsmen. SL lost these 3 finals- true, but that does not make them chokers. SA ....definitely maybe.

  • on June 18, 2013, 18:23 GMT

    I clearly remember smith's innings in 2009, he fought extremely hard and scored 141 but none other could score even 40! Despite losing the match he was the hero, saf will miss smith in this match for sure.

  • on June 18, 2013, 18:23 GMT

    I clearly remember smith's innings in 2009, he fought extremely hard and scored 141 but none other could score even 40! Despite losing the match he was the hero, saf will miss smith in this match for sure.

  • on June 18, 2013, 19:51 GMT

    Sri Lankan's are definitely not chokers. They lost the final against the Aussies in W.Indies due to some shoddy umpiring. They were forced to bat in near darkness, when the rules clearly specified that they could have continued the game on the reserve day. Also Gilchrist had some aid from a squash ball in his batting glove, which was totally unfair and was definitely against the spirit of sportsmanship. In the last world cup final against India, they were beaten by the better team on the day, with magnificent batting by Gambir and Dhoni. Also it did not help that Angelo Matthews got injured in the semi which meant that SL had to make 3 changes for the final which upset the balance of the team, not to mention the political interference in team selections. T20 is a lottery at best and Malinga had a bad day and Samuels took him to the cleaners while Sunil Narine mesmerised the batsmen. SL lost these 3 finals- true, but that does not make them chokers. SA ....definitely maybe.

  • SurlyCynic on June 18, 2013, 22:02 GMT

    I'm enjoying this tournament (despite the frustrating weather), and the shorter format with quality teams makes it a good challenge.

    But does winning the Champions Trophy really mean that much in the long run? Most people on these boards keep stating that SA have never won an ICC tournament, forgetting that they won the first Champions Trophy. Its not easy to recall all the winners, and it's about to be discontinued.

    So I'm not trying to knock the tournament, just wonder whether it really matters that much.

  • gibbs.175 on June 19, 2013, 0:32 GMT

    Hi SA fans...this is another rare chance.....SA should play as a unit all 11 should try their best...restrict England from every corner,,,do not depend on a single hand(DALE) he is the best ,,,let him play free....good luck

  • on June 19, 2013, 6:00 GMT

    Sri Lankan's are definitely not chokers. They lost the final against the Aussies in W.Indies due to some shoddy umpiring. They were forced to bat in near darkness, when the rules clearly specified that they could have continued the game on the reserve day. Also Gilchrist had some aid from a squash ball in his batting glove, which was totally unfair and was definitely against the spirit of sportsmanship. In the last world cup final against India, they were beaten by the better team on the day, with magnificent batting by Gambir and Dhoni. Also it did not help that Angelo Matthews got injured in the semi which meant that SL had to make 3 changes for the final which upset the balance of the team, not to mention the political interference in team selections. T20 is a lottery at best and Malinga had a bad day and Samuels took him to the cleaners while Sunil Narine mesmerised the batsmen. SL lost these 3 finals- true, but that does not make them chokers. SA ....definitely maybe.

  • mahjut on June 19, 2013, 8:27 GMT

    not at all surprised the 'features comment' features Choking ... of course, they've already had two knock out games - you guys know that right? and they are NOT one of the tourney favourites - in fact in the knock out games they've won they beat two of the top five fancied teams and possibly the second most fancied in their comfort zone of T20 (well, it was closer to a T20 than an ODI)

  • ajithabey on June 19, 2013, 8:32 GMT

    Let there be a full days cricket and may the better team make it to the finals. If D/L comes into play, cricket will be the loser playing a major international tournament in fickle weather conditions. Good luck to both teams in this outing.

  • mahjut on June 19, 2013, 8:42 GMT

    Rahul_78. Every team whether playing SA or not should take a leaf out of the NZ book that game. Stay in the game and build pressure and you have every chance of winning the game - completely irrespective of who you're playing.

  • AlbertPintoGussaHua on June 19, 2013, 9:16 GMT

    @SurlyCynic ... No it does not matter, just like any other sporting event or even the Olympics. It's just a show for entertainment, like watching a movie. Still a lot of people get so attached to the outcome, to forget the whole thing a few weeks later. So just enjoy the moment while it lasts. Win or lose, ultimately its just a [silly] game. ;-)

  • Santokieleftarmspinner on June 19, 2013, 9:24 GMT

    South Africa were chokers but after last Friday West Indies have taken that title! Game in the bag and thrown away. Why did no-one call them chokers? With this team of relative nobodies, making the semi-finals is like winning the whole thing!