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