When a choke isn't a choke
South Africa's capitulation against New Zealand has brought the c-word out again. Nothing seems to have changed for them in big tournaments ever since they came back to international cricket after the apartheid era. They have always had the arsenal to go all the way and yet have fallen short, always in the knock-out stages. Not a single win in knock-out games in a World Cup is a record they'd give both their arms and legs to change.
While their record cannot be contested, whether they choked or not against New Zealand can be debated. There's a fundamental difference between choking and panicking, which the writer Malcolm Gladwell explains quite proficiently. While Gladwell talks in the context of tennis, his theory explains choking in cricket too.
What happened to South Africa against New Zealand in Mirpur was a bad case of panic, though it was conveniently considered a choke. So what exactly is choking and how is it different from panicking?
The fundamental difference is that while you think too much when you choke, you think too little when you panic. While choking, you want to delay the inevitable, but when you panic you want to get over with it as soon as possible, for you can't bear the growing pressure.
You play safe You may finish 30 runs short of the target if the opposition bowls really well and you lose all your wickets in the bargain. On the other hand, if you get to the 50th over needing 40 runs with five wickets in the hut, that's more of a problem. Some may call it a miscalculation but it really comes down to the mindset: to play safe for as long as possible.
South Africa have done this more times than any other team. Remember the tied game against Australia, when Allan Donald was run out? The match would have finished much earlier had Kallis and Co. not allowed Mark Waugh to bowl a lot of overs in the middle.
Chasing a target is a lot about identifying threats and weak links in the opposition and then treading with caution against potential threats while going after the weak links. Playing in safe mode can take you only so far; you must change gears at some point.
You don't take calculated risks Yuvraj Singh could easily have dabbed the ball towards third man instead of going over the point fielder against Brett Lee in the quarter-final in Ahmedabad. Going aerial may look dicey to some but it is extremely important to take calculated risks when you're playing strong opposition. If you wait forever for things to happen, chances are you won't be there when they do. When you refuse to take these calculated risks, you run the risk of digging a hole for the team, i.e. choking.
When you over-think, you tend to think about how things can go wrong, and so you stop trusting your instincts. When you think before every step you take, you end up walking too slow. If you keep thinking about the possibility of getting stumped, you will never be able to go down the track.
Playing an aggressive shot is, most times, about backing yourself and trusting your instincts to go through with it. But the fear of what may happen if the shot is mistimed, or the ball bounces a bit more or less than expected, can result in a defensive prod. This is choking at a micro level.
I've also found that teams and individuals who are more inclined to technique than flair are more likely to choke. Their strategic and technical know-how tell them to play it safe. On the contrary, people who have a healthy mix of technique with flair - say, Pakistan - are less likely to choke.
You commit hara-kiri Panic is, in fact, the exact opposite of choking. If you play it too safe for too long when you choke, you self-destruct in fast-forward when you panic. What happened to South Africa in Mirpur was a straightforward case of panicking. There were no demons in the track and the New Zealand attack wasn't all that formidable. South Africa were cruising at 108 for 2 at the halfway stage but once they lost a couple of wickets, panic set in. When you start trying to take non-existent singles (the AB de Villiers run-out), start manufacturing shots when you only need to play percentage cricket (JP Duminy's dismissal), play reckless shots despite having a set batsman at the other end (Dale Steyn's and Robin Peterson's dismissals), it's a sign the team has lost it.
You abandon rational thought You think too much while choking and too little when you panic. You may need to score a run a ball, but somehow it feels a lot more than that. A couple of dot balls are followed up by a high-risk shot to ease the pressure. When you panic you tend to overestimate the pressure. A run a ball, with wickets in hand, is like walking in the park on most days, but not when you're panicking. Rational thinking deserts you the moment you panic.
Why did Bangladesh play silly shots when wickets were tumbling all around them against South Africa? It's common sense that if you're four down for not many, you must drop anchor, but they did exactly the opposite and tried playing ambitious shots. A six or a four can't win you the game, but you don't think along those lines when you panic.
Fear takes hold When you choke, you fear making mistakes, and subsequently you fail. When you panic, it is the prospect of failure that you fear, which leads to committing mistakes. The fear of failure cripples you so much that you self-destruct and bring about the failure you fear.
Panic has a domino effect. It is like an epidemic that spreads through the team, while choking can be restricted to a couple of batsmen in the middle. Once panic sets in, it's quite apparent and visible to everyone, including the players in question, but choking goes unnoticed till the eventual calamity is at the door.
If I may draw an analogy from tennis: when a player chokes, he keeps hitting safe shots, bang in the middle of the court, ensuring they miss the net and are well inside the baseline, hoping the opponent will make a mistake. When the same player panics, he goes for non-existing winners, resulting in enforced errors.
The outcomes of choking and panicking may be the same but both are different from each other. So the next time you see a team lay down their arms, it might be worth looking closely to see if they have choked or panicked under pressure.