The Art of Losing March 9, 2013

Spotlight on South Africa's hoodoo

An attempt at examining why they bottle it in major tournaments

One of the chief selling points of most sports books is that they tell stories of achievement and triumph. If the tale has not reached that point, you could consider it premature to pen pages and pages about a subject. That, however, is what Luke Alfred has chosen to do.

After the 2011 World Cup, the former sports editor of the South African Sunday Times was left wanting to understand why major tournaments are an Achilles heel for South Africa, and whether, in dissecting the reasons for the losses, it would lead to the discovery of an ideal approach to winning. The Art of Losing is an in-depth look at all six World Cup campaigns South Africa have participated in and examines the reasons for their shortcomings.

It begins with the blunt words, "This is a book about failure." And goes on to: "It is also a book about ghosts and about how ghosts tend to haunt even the brave and strong-willed, the courageous and noble." South African cricket purports to be the entire latter quartet; still it is troubled by an inability to cross the finish line.

Only halfway through the book does the first argument for sub-standard performances at crucial moments make an appearance. That stands to reason because before then South Africa had played in just three World Cups and only one of them, 1999, was an event they should have won.

The chapter on the 2003 World Cup sees the introduction of a psychologist, Clinton Gahwiler from the Sports Science Institute. He discusses, in general terms, how South African coaches are not honest enough with their players and how the type of cricketers bred in the country are not always the sort who can think for themselves.

But that does not mean the sections preceding do not have value. They are necessary to establish a pattern and track the development of South African cricket since readmission. They also feature colourful, intimate anecdotes that have not been published before.

The narrative begins with an insightful look at the politics of re-entering the global sports stage and how that affected the 1992 squad. The recollection of that World Cup is gently spiced with details that put sport in the context in which it was played, against the background of the country's political referendum. Had the outcome of that vote, which asked whites only whether apartheid should end, been no, the team may have had to return home mid-tournament. Details about which players voted - there were only three - and how Alan Jordaan, the manager, handled the situation will be new to most readers.

The section is spoiled somewhat, as is the rest of the book, by match details, which tend to get tedious. Some may disagree, but in an age where scorecards are available with a few clicks, recalling them in specific detail breaks the flow of what is essentially a human story.

The first-hand anecdotes make the book. Steve Palframan remembers replacing Dave Richardson in the 1996 World Cup squad and arriving at the pre-tournament camp at the team hotel with his wife and one-day old baby, who "had his second bath in a basin at the Fish River Sun". Cassim Docrat, now the chief executive officer of the Lions franchise and manager of that campaign, explains the dietary challenges the South Africans, who had hardly travelled to the subcontinent before then, faced, and the joys of shopping there.

While the failure to progress in those first two tournaments was put down to inexperience, the exit of 1999 was far more significant. The event is built up to in a chapter of its own, with the emphasis on Lance Klusener. The tournament itself is covered in two more parts, with interviews from Derek Crookes, Neil Johnson of Zimbabwe, and Herschelle Gibbs, and a link is drawn between the UEFA Champions League final between Manchester United and Bayern Munich, and South Africa and Australia.

Similar key player interviews are missing on other occasions, though. Allan Donald is a glaring example from 1999. None of Shaun Pollock, Eric Simons or Mark Boucher feature in the 2003 section, Graeme Smith and Mickey Arthur are absent from 2007, and only Corrie van Zyl, Paddy Upton and Morne van Wyk feature for 2011, where one of the more experienced players could perhaps have explained the hurt better.

The common thread is how South Africa have responded to pressure: with undue aggression and internal combustion. Two eye-opening incidents, one to do with how a project to film a television documentary on World Cup campaigns was aborted, and the second an altercation between team management and a journalist after South Africa's loss to England in Chennai 2011, shed light on that point.

Despite the absence of some of the main characters, Alfred offers up varied, thought-provoking reasons for South Africa's lack of silverware. He questions whether it is a product of the schooling system, with a close look at the context in which the country's cricketers have been educated, and discusses Malcolm Gladwell's essay dealing with the difference between choking and panicking.

He does not fully answer the question on the cover: about why the Proteas choke at the cricket World Cup. Instead he presents a range of reasons. In that respect, the work is a new concept in South African cricket writing, which is often coloured only in black and white as it aims to underline itself with certainty.

Alfred's narrative is coloured many shades of pastel, and it subtly opens the door for discussion and debate. Whether he has succeeded may only be known after the next limited-overs campaign, in a few months' time.

The book was launched late last year, after the author had begun working for CSA as a consultant, and immediately ruffled feathers because of its title. In keeping with the old adage of not judging a book by its cover, however, its contents are not as inflammatory as the name suggests.

It may have been ill-timed, especially with the Test side enjoying their most dominant phase and the next World Cup two years away, but there is a Champions Trophy in a few months' time, and South Africa's current limited-overs struggles illustrate many of the themes in the book, which may become more relevant if silverware continues to stay away.

The Art of Losing
by Luke Alfred
Zebra Press, 2012
296 pages, R220

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Deon on March 11, 2013, 13:10 GMT

    SA's failure to win the world cup can easily be explained. Statistically, SA has had a 47% chance of not winning the world cup during their first six attempts. The following formula has been applied: 95% (1992) x 88% (1996) x 85% (1999) x 85% (2003) x 88% (2007) * 88% (2011). See. Easy.

  • David on March 10, 2013, 7:38 GMT

    You can't discuss this meaningfully without exploring the extent to which teams did or did not fix matches at the 1999 World Cup.

    If you accept the possibility that there might have been fixing, you acknowledge that South Africa's captain was soon after to be convicted of matchfixing and implicated the man who dropped a crucial catch. You then have an extremely unusual run out to explain.

    In 92 SA was new to international cricket and was robbed by a rain shower. In 96 they were knocked out by Lara. In 03 they cracked at home during a transition period (Donald past his best, Pollock down on pace, Australia unbeatable) and in 2011 they just collapsed from a decent position.

    I see no dramas to be honest, other than in 1999. Cronje's team.

  • Edward on March 10, 2013, 6:56 GMT

    As a cricket fan, I find it funny that a world cup in sports like cricket and rugby exists. The first cricket world cup played, was in 1975 with only 8 nations participating. 38 years later there is still only about 10 nations who are worthy of competing at a level akin to some form of a world competition. It is such a shame that the "cricket world championship" is determined in one of the lesser forms of the game.

  • Prashan on March 10, 2013, 3:37 GMT

    This current SA side is no doubt an awesome test XI. But for the shorter formats it is different. For the not so good teams, shorter formats help them to give out their best due to the simple short duration. Longer the game goes, weaker teams feel the mental fatigue. Longer format help the top teams as the mental toughness is what distinguishes the best and the worse sides. In ODIs and T20s, no wonder surprises happen a lot unlike in tests.

    Another fact I want to mention is that wicket taking bowlers in tests such as Anderson, Steyn, Morkel, Philander etc are pretty expensive in the shorter formats. Reason is that for ODIs and T20s you dont need wicket taking bowlers. Just run pegging bowlers in the likes of Kulasekara or Mathews would be good. Also, in ODIs and T20s with the white ball losing shine fast unlike the red ball, good bowlers like Steyn & Morkel will be ineffective. But in tests, red ball shine lasts for 20 overs making it very difficult to survive the SA pace attack.

  • Tim on March 10, 2013, 0:48 GMT

    I hate to be "that guy", but in response to Soso_killer, the All Blacks won the most recent Rugby World Cup in 2011 - so New Zealand has now won it twice.

  • Dummy4 on March 9, 2013, 19:50 GMT

    @Ashwin kumar: Kallis did not play that shot to third man. He had pulled that to deep mid wicket boundary where Tall Oram pouched the ball. Had it been anyone for Oram, Kallis would have got six with that"unnecessary shot". And who knows, WC 2013 would be adorning CSA office instead of BCCI.

  • Muthuvel on March 9, 2013, 15:33 GMT

    SA test team is awesome, steyn kallis,smith...respect best in the world. But lol ODI team. SA ODI team,Dutch soccer team and NZ rugby team..stuff of legend...

  • Dummy4 on March 9, 2013, 13:54 GMT

    One thing common about SA's losses in knockout games in the World Cup is that their batting has failed, especially while chasing, like in 1996 QF, 1999 SF and 2011 QF (the 2003 tie against SL was a gross mathematical error and 1992 SF against England involved a ridiculous rain rule). In 2007 SF hey psychologically accepted defeat against the invincible Aussies (at that time) before even the match had begun and hence their batting completely imploded, leaving AUS a paltry total to chase. 2011 QF against NZ was a perfect choke as SA were chasing a modest total of 222 and were cruising at 108/2 at one stage and then collapsed following the departure of Kallis with an unnecessary shot to third man. In 1999 actually SA would have lost (they tied) if not for Klusener who single-handedly took SA to the stage of levelling the scores before that heartbreaking runout. in 1996 QF against WI following Lara's century SA had no answer to the giles of Roger Harper.

  • Patrick on March 9, 2013, 13:39 GMT

    I would argue that only the 2011 defeat was a real choke. Lazy journalism has conflated all the defeats into an easy one size fits all label. In 1996 and 2007 SA were beaten by better teams - simple as that. We all know that 2003 was a shambles but not a choke. Even 1999 wasn't a real choke - calamatous run outs occur all the time. As another poster has said, Donald was almost run out on the previous ball, and was therefore too concerned with not backing up too far that he didn't notice Klusener charging down the wicket towards him, Still, ever since that semi final defeat journos have been repeating the 'choke' thing so often that it became a self fulfilling prophecy. Obviously the SA team does have a problem with it, but if certain journalists didn't keep banging on about it all the time, maybe it wouldn't weigh so heavily on their collective mind.

  • Tim on March 9, 2013, 12:50 GMT

    Come on guys it's what we do! Let's not change a 20 year tradition. Very fair comment Soso, add to these parallels the Netherlands football team, despite being a superpower and having been in 3 finals they have never won the world cup. You need your slice of luck when you are playing against 11 guys committed to beating you. Let's not forget '95 where the late Bob Woolmer and Hansie Cronje created a formidable team and system. I remember our opening game against Pakistan when we silenced the home crowd (quieter than Beagle 2) making a mokery of chasing their sizeable total. But we came up against a WI team that we could not beat on the day... Jeez we suffer supporting the Proteas ODI team!

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