September 22, 2007

C is for cock-up

Robert Houwing
The world can call them chokers and laugh but South Africa's exit from the World Twenty20 had its roots in simpler cricketing reasons

That 1999 feeling: Shaun Pollock walks back after being bowled for a duck against India © Getty Images

South African cricket enthusiasts are nothing if not long-suffering. Botched another match at the business end of a global tournament, eh? Well, um, ja, as we blandly state in these parts. And truth be told, the mocking middle finger from adversaries doesn't even hurt anymore.

For that infernal word which the national team so despise hearing, "chokers", is as much a part of the post-isolation Proteas furniture as a stubborn cat on a fireside spinster's knees. Only it doesn't lie so contentedly and there is, simply, no ready defence against it.

It's a particularly weird phenomenon, too, when you consider that South Africa are always expected to be gritty trench-fighters (unsubtle ones, maybe, but trench-fighters all the same) for the largest part of series or tournaments against sides of similar or better competence. Fighters and chokers oughtn't to share a table, ought they?

Having been in the Edgbaston press box for that tumultuous, exit-inducing tie against Australia at World Cup 1999, I could not avoid eerie feelings of déjà vu following the unscripted Twenty20 "Kingsmead KO" against cock-a-hoop India.

Think back to the see-sawing high drama at Birmingham (I know I'll never forget it): Shaun Pollock and Allan Donald grab nine wickets between them as Australia succumb to 213 all out within their 50 overs. South Africa have done the hard yards. Haven't they?

They then race to 48 without loss in reply. Why, this might even be a doddle! But Shane Warne rips a near Gatting ball into Herschelle Gibbs' stumps to spark a dreadful implosion to 61 for 4. That's it, the tide has turned irreversibly in Australia's favour. Hasn't it?

Ah, but there's fight in South Africa (yes, that trench-combat instinct): they claw back to the very brink of triumph through the unerring blade of Lance Klusener, and a magnanimous Australian journalist - they do exist - turns and prematurely shakes my hand: "Good on yer, mate, you've done it." What happens next, of course, is the stuff of both folklore and comedy.

It was all so uncannily similar in Durban 2007: India, batting first, lose key wickets up front. South Africa - luxuriously knowing even then that they will have the option of a reduced target to what India eventually post - are looking (excuse the Mark Nicholas-ism) so, so good to make the semi-finals.

The ask to win the match turns out to be 154 - slightly stiffer than par, it is true, yet always in South African minds is the fiendishly attractive prospect of chasing down just 126 to play Pakistan at Newlands, and the Indian outcome be damned.

Oops, game over: the Proteas recede to a surreal 31 for 5 in the sixth over.

No, sorry, game on: a clenched-teethed Mark Boucher-Albie Morkel fightback takes them to 100 and the flag of the Rainbow Nation swings wildly again in the stands. Yippee, we're going to lose ... but win.

The tragicomedic equivalent to '99? This time it comes from the likes of Vernon Philander and Johan van der Wath as Harbhajan Singh makes their attempts to close the deal with the required thumping aggression look like a procession of mosquitoes to meek, crackling death by bright light.

Doubtless there will be talk, lots of it, both inside and beyond the South African camp about the latest we-made-a-pig's-ear-of-it fiasco. Psychologists will offer the couch, gurus will wave their sticks theatrically; everyone, really, will turn part-time shrink for a few days. But as much as such soul-searching is inevitable and important, its intensity and complexity may, regrettably, obscure the simpler, cricketing reasons for South Africa's early shower at their own show:

Nasser Hussain said it straight-up in his post-match interview with Greg (er, Graeme) Smith: why no Jacques Kallis? And why no Kallis indeed, when the South African squad, from the outset, looked palpably light on a pragmatic, calming specialist batsman for springtime coastal conditions that were always likely to turn up a dose of lethal night-time nip some time?

For that matter, it is tempting to ask: "Why no Ashwell Prince?" if the selectors were, indeed, dead set on "resting" Kallis, the compact little left-hander would have provided similar steadying qualities, and no lack of zesty mobility in the field.

More a matter for the Cricket South Africa bosses than the selectors, perhaps, but the bewildering prod into exile of that bulldog competitor Andrew Hall meant his absence, especially in death bowling terms, was keenly felt.

It's a particularly weird phenomenon, too, when you consider that South Africa are always expected to be gritty trench-fighters. Fighters and chokers oughtn't to share a table, ought they?

Why insist on playing Test kingpin Makhaya Ntini in Twenty20 cricket when it is becoming more and more clear that even in the 50-overs brand he is beginning to "travel" too much?

Why pick Thandi Tshabalala - again - if you're going to give this supposed investment for the future no exposure at all in the tournament? The message, so clearly, is: we aren't really sure about you, Thands.

It's a funny old thing: the Proteas had a pretty good World Twenty20, when you think about it. Yet their only reward was to enhance their status as chokers supreme in the eyes of millions across the planet.

My sixpence? You can offer all the psychobabble in the world to try to address South African cricket's near-terminal problem, but it's of little use if some of the patients enter therapy largely brain-dead in the first place.

Robert Houwing is editor of The Wisden Cricketer (South African edition)