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Turning the label around

For once, South Africa are on the right side of a choke

Neil Manthorp

October 30, 2007

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Graeme Smith's captaincy was the most striking aspect of South Africa's victory © AFP
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South Africa have completed one of their most successful tours for a decade, with Test and one-day series wins against Pakistan, but the impact of their success may take a very long time to sink in for two reasons. First, the World Cup-winning Springboks are coming towards the end of their countrywide parade of the William Webb Ellis trophy, and second, Graeme Smith and his team will probably never quite understand just how they won the final game in Lahore.

With the series set up perfectly for the grand finale, the tourists were well set for one huge, final push - and they slipped. They appeared to misread conditions at the Gadaffi Stadium, batted meekly, and were outplayed for approximately 90 of the 96.3 overs the match lasted.

But they won. Or, more accurately, Pakistan lost. Hideously.

Whatever the likes of Shaun Pollock, Jacques Kallis and Smith thought deep down while their hosts were vomiting up defeat from the stomach of victory, their looks of disbelief must have contained at least a smattering of irony. "So this is what we must have looked like," they might have said to themselves.

But Pakistan's choke, of course, was a very different beast to the one that normally attaches itself to the throats of South African cricket teams. There are two kinds of choke: the rabbit and the wolf.

In the first the victim sits quite still and terrified as the truck approaches on the highway, headlights on full beam. The second kind is so menacing and inspires such terror that panic and pandemonium take over. South Africa have perfected the art of the rabbit choke. Pakistan do the wolf version.

Brilliant as Kallis was during the Test series, his lack of form during the one-dayers was the single biggest reason why his team did not win more comfortably. Form, for Kallis in particular, is more a state of mind than about foot movement or timing. And when he believes that fate or the elements are conspiring against him, he finds it hard to unearth positive energy.

The pitches for the first two games in Lahore were cunningly prepared to undermine his game, and this had an effect on the rest of the top order, who take their cue from the master. When a ball keeps low or, heaven forbid, bounces a few inches more than expected, Kallis can look as though he has been delivered a hissing cobra. Few current players can make more of a bit of misbehaviour than Jacques Henry. And the others, with the exception of Herschelle Gibbs, believe his body language and the message it sends.

Coach Mickey Arthur should also take responsibility for publicly predicting "a shocker" of a pitch for the final game. It was clear from the moment Kallis made his ponderous start that a total of 230 had been, perhaps subconsciously, settled upon. In the event, conditions were far more 260 than 230.

Whether the final reward came more as a result of his opponents' self-imposed asphyxiation or not, Smith will do extremely well to remember that cool heads are rewarded far more often than hot ones in the heat of sporting battle

Nonetheless South Africa won and remain firmly entrenched in second place on the ICC's league table behind Australia, and for that there must be good reason, apart from the home side's abysmal collapse.

Pollock was inspired and motivated by his hurtful omission from the Test XI, and his form with bat and ball was as good as at any time in the last dozen years. Clearly there is much life left in the old dog.

Albie Morkel was a breath of fresh air, and having opted (on the back of an ankle injury a couple of years ago) to explore the role of a batting allrounder, a la Justin Kemp, showed indisputably that he can be the genuine article with bat as well as ball. A good showing this summer could easily see him positioned as one of the foundations upon which South Africa build their 2011 World Cup team.

It is hard to be sure whether Makhaya Ntini's profligacy was a result of a conscious effort to bowl more wicket-taking deliveries or simply an inability to exert the control he once had, but either way his remarkable strike-rate was greater over the five matches than any South African bowler has managed in a series for years. Pollock has become meaner with every game, but with the bite of a glove puppet; his new-ball partner's ability to take early wickets has more than made up for the expense. A portent for a new role in the future? Perhaps.

But the most striking aspect of South Africa's series victory (again, apart from Pakistan's contribution) was the captaincy of Graeme Smith. For the first time since he took over at the tender age of 22, Smith remained calm at every turn. When events conspired against him, he kept a lid on his emotions, thought calmly and rationally, offered personal assurances to beleaguered troops, and backed his key men at key stages. And, whether the final reward came more as a result of his opponents' self-imposed asphyxiation or not, he will do extremely well to remember that cool heads are rewarded far more often than hot ones in the throes of sporting battle.

Neil Manthorp is a South African broadcaster and journalist, and head of the MWP Sport agency

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Neil Manthorp Neil Manthorp is a writer and broadcaster based in Cape Town where he started the independent sports news agency MWP Media in 1992. He has covered more than 40 tours and 120 Test matches since South Africa's return to international cricket and Zimbabwe's elevation to Test status. A regular commentator for SABC radio, Neil has also joined the host radio teams in West Indies, New Zealand, Australia and England - where he preferred Test Match Special's pork pies to their chocolate cake. He recently completed Gary Kirsten's biography.
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