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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Harjinder on June 25, 2013, 5:51 GMT

    D.KOCK. , ELGAR. LEVI. ROSSOW ,KYLE ABOTT. ,BIRCH. , JENNING (Son of ray JENNING ) ZYL .......those all player deserve to be called for 20/20........and 50 overs cricket.....SA board always careless to pay attention towards young talents.....that's why SA could never touch the success continuously.....that is only reason of SA'failure in cricket......so board members can make a good team and best......good luck

  • Dummy4 on June 23, 2013, 21:23 GMT

    Frankly speaking South Africa was never at their best in this tournament. It is sorry to see players like David Miller, Morris, Mc Laren, Du Plusis, De Villiers and Dale Styen all played IPL and were in good touch. But when they arrived in England they were simple not at their best. Reason might be what ever, they were fortunate that rain has saved them against West Indies. If not WI was looking little better side than SA in this tournament. So coming to semis the plan of SA must be to play slowly initially and save wickets. After balls stop swinging then they must have attacked the other bowlers but SA top order was so in hurry that they wanted to score briskly and in that process lost too many wickets and posted a targeted which will never allow them to win the match. This team was not in the form and main players were in injured state that is why they were so weak in their performance.

  • Duncan on June 23, 2013, 7:51 GMT

    I agree with the article, SA did not choke, you have to be breathing normally and then something stops you from breathing for it to be called a choke. It was worse, SA were not good enough! They have the players but I have to question the captaincy, I don't know who else but AB is a noce guy, amazing skills, but he fails to impress as a strategic thinker in the field.

  • Muthuvel on June 22, 2013, 11:47 GMT

    SA with Amla,ABDV and Faf and Millers is not 80-8 side. They choked. I think its a good thing that Garry admitted it, he knows what we dont know. The first step to overcoming a problem is admitting it.

  • Mansoor on June 21, 2013, 8:55 GMT

    Yup!! THIS TIME THEY DINT CHOKE. Coz wenever they choked they started magnificently well but ended wonderfully worst!!! This time it was the 1st impression being last. And it will b hard for them to get out of it now.

  • John on June 21, 2013, 5:05 GMT

    @Craig Chan on (June 20, 2013, 22:57 GMT), you say yourself that choking requires nervous agitation or tension. Just because SA were 80-8 doesn't mean that it was due to that. Unless every low score is a choke, there's no specific reason to believe that this was. Maybe it was just a bad day at the office. Maybe it wasn't too, but everyone seems to want to attach a label to every bad performance SA put in without doing the same for other teams who perform similarly.

  • Jonathan on June 20, 2013, 23:24 GMT

    Let's also not forget that England were missing 2 key players, Pietersen and Swann. And still thumped the Saffers.

    I also think that England could and should have bowled better even with the attack they had, and been able to beat the Sri Lankans too. We lost because Bresnan and Broad both had shocking off-days - both persistently pitching too short, despite the excellent example of Anderson - and because Cook failed to see that Bopara was bowling well enough that he should have been allowed to finish his 10-over spell even if it meant cutting a few overs from Broad or Bresnan.

  • Dummy4 on June 20, 2013, 22:57 GMT

    choke: To fail to perform effectively because of nervous agitation or tension, especially in an athletic contest South Africa did choke. Choking does not have to be preceded by playing well to get in a strong position. A team can choke at the start of a match thus never getting into a strong position in the first place. South Africa were nowhere near their potential. England did bowl well but South Africa does have the batsmen to cope. If 80-8 is not choking, then what is?

  • Anand on June 20, 2013, 17:10 GMT

    Kallis, Smith, Steyn, and Morne, are all tough to replace, especially the latter two when you havent been planning, but that is hardly an excuse. Eventually Kallis is going to retire, so does that mean SA will always use that as an excuse to loose. Nobody cares if it was a choke, or a thrashing, what needs to be on the top of the agenda is identifying correct set of players to replace. Imagine what the Ozs are going through, India may think their problems are solved, but their bowling is really weak, but they are at least headed in the right direction. Its not so easy to find resources if they are not available in domestic circuit, but at least selection needs to be spot on with players that are available. SA's fast bowling riches are both a boon, and a curse, they really lack any form of penetration, and their bowling attack is 1-d. Every team has its own issues, but SA lack of variety in bowling has been going on for ages....

  • Android on June 20, 2013, 16:54 GMT

    Choking will not always manifest as throwing away of a strong position. Sometimes it will manifest as not getting into any position at all and in the process making the opposition look like playing inhuman level of cricket. Till such time SA win ANY knockout game at all, it's going to be hard to not ignore the mental part of their cricket.