England v SA, Champions Trophy, semi-final, The Oval June 19, 2013

A choke? Not really, just a thrashing

Gary Kirsten's time in charge of South Africa finished the way of a few men before him, and there appears no end in sight to the team's quest to banish their demons

Let's be honest. South Africa did not choke in this semi-final, even though Gary Kirsten insisted they did. Maybe it's just easier for him to confront the word head on rather than argue the finer points of difference between being noosed and being nowhere. South Africa were the latter.

After collapsing to 80 for 8 and clawing their way to a semi-respectable total, they had to endure England's measured run chase, a lesson in how they should have batted. Jonathan Trott played a delicate, well-paced innings, soft enough to take some of the sting out of the morning's madness and to leave South Africa resigned to the inevitable.

But the real trouble started long before that. They were lucky to get to the semi-finals after winning only one group match. Once there, they were never in the match. They were outplayed and they lost.

In the minds of many that is equivalent to choking and South Africa will carry that ever-heavier tag until they win an ICC event. "The dark mist" Kirsten refers to will only burn off when a trophy arrives, and he admitted not even he knows how to secure one.

When he took over the South Africa job, that was not his primary concern. The first year of his tenure was focused on acquiring the Test mace and Kirsten could be forgiven for neglecting limited-overs cricket. What he can be questioned on is using them as laboratories for experimentation.

Sixteen players made their debut under his watch, which was a solid exercise in depth exploration, but combinations rarely stayed the same for consecutive matches. The floating batting line-up that Kirsten toyed with during his time with India could not translate to a set-up as rigid as South Africa's.

It flopped at the World Twenty20 in Sri Lanka last year and Kirsten hinted he would abandon it. But in this tournament he used three different No. 3s in four matches. It was evidence that South Africa have enough players capable of fulfilling a particular position but not anyone who feels it's theirs to own.

That theme applied across the board and it took root at the top with AB de Villiers. He seemed a natural choice as captain when he was appointed but quickly proved otherwise. Indecision, uncertainty and being overburdened led to him relinquishing the wicketkeeping gloves in an attempt to concentrate on leadership and batting, and then taking them back when Kirsten decided that he would give South Africa their best chance.

If de Villiers had the likes of Graeme Smith, Jacques Kallis or even Johan Botha (who has moved to South Australia) to assist, he may have been able to handle the treble role easier. For now, it seems something always has to give. In this tournament he improved in his decision-making and managing of bowlers but his batting was not up to standard.

On the whole, South Africa's wasn't. They ran India close in result terms but never looked like they could seriously challenge to win the match, and if Misbah-ul-Haq had some support, Pakistan could have chased down 234. They turned on some style against West Indies but in a rain-affected match a decent total is difficult to judge, and they collapsed against England.

Those things have all happened before with Smith and Kallis in the XI, so the batting bloopers are not personnel- or technique-related; they are all about mindset. Kirsten has gone where those before him did not even consider, to try and change the way the South Africa squad thinks.

He introduced them to a man who scales the world's tallest peaks for fun so they could understand pressure better. They climbed mountains with Mike Horn and it helped strengthen their Test performances, but cycling in Amsterdam with him did not help the one-day side learn about the same.

Put simply, South Africa's Test squad is mature and settled. They were at the stage where they could benefit from an out-of-the-box excursion. The one-day side is not. They needed clear guidelines, proper preparation and solid game plans to succeed. Even if they had all those, they may still have come up short.

Morne Morkel and Dale Steyn were another pair of absentees who Kirsten was confident would not be missed too much. In bilateral series, South Africa have played without one or both of them in certain matches and won. They are not the only two fast bowlers who are good enough but add their loss to everything else South Africa faced and the accumulation of problems is obvious.

Winning one match out of four is not good enough to advance in any tournament, and South Africa's eventual return is an accurate reflection of where they are as a one-day team at the moment. They are very much a work in progress and they will have to make those developments without Kirsten.

His last match in charge was one he will want to forget and it leaves his CV with South Africa incomplete. While he will move on to more leisurely pursuits, they will continue trying to find a way to win when it matters. His advice was that would need "guts and glory", with the task of finding those qualities now handed to Russell Domingo.

He has a few weeks before the next series, in Sri Lanka, and months before the next major event, the World Twenty20 in Bangladesh, but already it is clear South Africa will need to go through a familiar cycle yet again.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent

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