April 29, 2010

The old restriction in the throat

They have a star coach and a renowned sports psychologist helping them this time. But will the two be able to tackle the old familiar big-tournament hoodoo?

How many South African teams does it take to win an ICC trophy? At last count, 12 was not the right answer.

Five South African World Cup sides have been beaten and bowed, another five went, saw and were conquered in the Champions Trophy, and two more have limped away empty-handed from World Twenty20 tournaments. Only once have South Africa's efforts to win an ICC tournament not ended in failure. That was in Dhaka in 1998, when they beat West Indies by four wickets in the final of the ICC Knockout.

South Africa are perennially at or near the top of the rankings in every form of the game. They have won series against all opposition, home and away. Their ranks are studded with some of the finest players of the age. And yet their trophy cabinet continues to echo with all the emptiness of a freshly robbed bank vault. South Africa have an unhappy habit of coming unstuck at the quarter-final or semi-final stage. They have done so four times in the World Cup, another three times in the Champions Trophy, and once in the World Twenty20.

If you thought they did better at home, think again. All three of the ICC's major events have been hosted in South Africa, and each time the Proteas have wilted before reaching the play-offs.

The lasting images in their World Cup history are melodramatically mournful. In 1992, the SCG scoreboard read "South Africa to win need 22 runs off 1 ball" in their semi-final against England. Lance Klusener and Allan Donald stood staring at each other like a couple of gormless ducks marooned on opposite sides of a freeway after one of the more ridiculous run-outs in cricket history in the 1999 semi-final against Australia at Edgbaston. The run-out tied the match, which put the Aussies in the final. Not forgetting the soggy Duckworth-Lewis sheet that was incorrectly read in a first-round match against Sri Lanka on a wet night in Kingsmead in 2003. Another tie resulted, along with another exit for the South Africans.

The old anxieties are gnawing once more as the World Twenty20 looms on the Caribbean horizon. Will this be the tournament in which South Africa finally play to their potential when they need to? Or will they again find themselves trying to explain away that pesky involuntary restriction of the throat? Those questions cannot be answered without knowing what's gone wrong for them previously.

"Like everybody else, I can only guess at what the problem is," said Corrie van Zyl, South Africa's coach.

That makes a change. For too long, those at the helm of the good ship South Africa have tried to argue that the rocks jutting through the deck are actually lamp-posts lighting the way ahead. But not van Zyl.

"We have more than enough talent and skill in the side to win trophies," he said. "Certainly, we have all the hard skills; perhaps we're lacking in some of the softer skills. So you've got to ask yourself why this keeps happening to us. We all say a semi-final or a final is just another game, but is that true? And the more you try not to think about it, the more you end up thinking about it. It becomes the elephant in the room."

So van Zyl has gone out and hired an elephant keeper. Or should that be an elephant loser? His name is Henning Gericke, a sports psychologist. Gericke's chief claim to fame is helping to turn the rugby union Springboks from the zeroes they were at the 2003 World Cup, where they crashed out in the quarter-finals, into the heroes of the 2007 tournament, which they won.

He, too, veered off the path of denial that South Africa's players and management have trod for too long. "The important thing is to make South Africa function better as a team," Gericke said. "The team culture is obviously crucial, and perhaps we need to do some work on that. We have very good leaders in the team, players like Graeme Smith, Mark Boucher, Jacques Kallis and AB de Villiers. But we need more leaders, particularly in difficult situations.

"In the beginning of a tournament, we tend to be so sharp and so ready. But we haven't played well in the playoff stages. If you look at some of the more successful teams in most sports, they will sometimes look less than impressive when they win smaller matches. But they always get up for the big games. There's a fine balance between playing fearlessly and playing with composure. That's something we need to work on." Towards that end, Gericke will give each member of the South African World Twenty20 squad a diary. "We're entitling the diary 'The Next Level', because let's face it we're not there yet. If we were, we'd be winning trophies."

Boeta Dippenaar has been there, done that and played 107 one-day internationals. He was part of South Africa's 2003 World Cup squad, and felt the hollowness of defeat in two Champions Trophy semi-finals.

"We have as good a chance of winning [the World Twenty20] as any other team, but how the players respond to that expectation is what matters," Dippenaar said. "We have so many very talented, very experienced players, but these are the same players who carry a lot of the mental scarring of what has happened in the past."

According to Dippenaar, South Africa could learn volumes from Australia, whose sustained successes represent a mirror image of his own country's lack thereof. "The one thing that has always stood out for me about the Australians is that there is far more of a common purpose among them than there is among South Africans. It's as if they say, 'This is what is what we want to achieve as Australia'. It starts at the top with the government, and I wouldn't be surprised if it filters all the way down to the kids in their first year of school. I'm not sure if the same attitude is that prevalent among South Africans."

Dippenaar said South Africa could compete with the best in terms of talent and skill, but that their grip on the game's great intangibles was less secure. "I've always been surprised at the lack of importance coaches in South Africa have placed on the mental aspects of the game," he said. "Seventy percent of your success depends on your mental approach, but we tend to leave that 70% up to the individual."

When South African coaches do venture into their players' heads, they tend to adopt a one-size-fits-all approach. "We need to remember that the thing that makes Jacques Kallis tick is probably not the same thing that makes Herschelle Gibbs tick," Dippenaar said.

Van Zyl played in six trophy-winning Free State teams, and he coached all six of the Eagles teams that have been champions of various competitions in the franchise era. Dippenaar captained most of the Eagles teams that van Zyl coached.

"We mustn't forget that he is a very successful coach, he has won lots of trophies," Dippenaar said. "He's at a different level now, but he knows what it takes to win."

All of South Africa will hope that van Zyl also knows how many coaches or psychologists it takes to change a lightbulb. The answer: none - the lightbulb has to want to change itself.

Telford Vice is a freelance cricket writer in South Africa

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