April 3, 2011

The problem with South Africa

Kepler Wessels
There have been specific reasons why each of South Africa's World Cup campaigns was unsuccessful. Now all they can do is focus on moving on

The shock waves are still running through South Africa and will continue to do so for a long while after the astonishing defeat of the national side by a spirited New Zealand. What hurts the most is that South African sporting teams and individuals have prided themselves on being physically strong and mentally tough. The unanswered question is, why does the cricket team not live up to this true South African sporting credo?

Much has been said and written in the last few days by many people, most of whom haven't walked the walk and therefore have little understanding of the complex mental problem that has besieged the South African cricket team since 1999.

South Africa's demise at World Cup events needs close scrutiny for an objective assessment. The World Cup of 1992 was a triumph for a country that came back to international competition after two decades in political isolation. Considering that there was hardly any international experience in that team, reaching the semi-final was a fine achievement. Had the Duckworth-Lewis system applied then, I am told South Africa would have won by three runs. I haven't checked because the image on the scoreboard of suddenly needing 22 runs off one delivery is still firmly implanted in my mind and too painful a memory to recall.

The 1996 campaign was derailed by a selection error. South Africa had arguably the best team in the competition. In a moment of selection madness the South African selectors left out Allan Donald for the crucial quarter-final against West Indies. What possessed them to do that, only they know. Suffice to say Brian Lara and his West Indian team could not believe their luck. Lara himself flourished and South Africa were defeated by a strong West Indian combination.

Like in 1996, the 1999 South team was arguably the strongest in the competition. They played well throughout the and got to the semi-final through a good team effort and the heroics of Lance Klusener. There were some strange tactical decisions in the lead-up to the much-publicised encounter against Australia. None more so than in that game when Daryll Cullinan was unnecessarily exposed to his nemesis, Shane Warne. The Herschelle Gibbs dropped catch against Australia in the previous game, with Steve Waugh the beneficiary, kept Australia in the tournament, and led to South Africa's infamous demise in the semi-final after a moment of blind panic from Klusener and Donald, who lost their composure when the match was won. This was when the term "choke" was conceived. There was an uneasy atmosphere in that South African team. Not surprisingly so, considering the fact that the match-fixing scandal broke soon after the event.

In 2003, South Africa were still reeling from the match-fixing saga. The tournament was always going to be a difficult tournament for them due to that fact. Having said that, the team management should have been more decisive in understanding and applying the rain rule. Even if South Africa had prevailed against Sri Lanka in that event it was unlikely that they would have won the World Cup.

The board will also hopefully find a captain who will be a quality individual and who will bring back the principle that playing for your country is the ultimate privilege and not a given right

Two-thousand seven promised much but ended in tears. During that tournament South Africa were dogged by controversy regarding team discipline and team harmony. Despite this they did well enough to make the semi-final. Unfortunately Australia won the mental battle even before the match began. The Aussies were uncharacteristically quiet during that event. Just before the semi-final clash against South Africa they started to make a few challenging statements. South Africa responded in kind and promised to take them on and dominate their key players like Glenn McGrath. There was always only going to be one winner when South Africa misread the conditions and went with a bold plan A instead of changing to a more conservative plan B when conditions differed from what they thought.

In 2011 it was nothing other than buckling under pressure. This time the scars of the past came to haunt South Africa more than at any other time. Call it what you will, South Africa's demise at World Cups has been multi-faceted, and not as simplistic as the c word.

Since Graeme Smith took over the reins, Cricket South Africa, and in particular CEO Gerald Majola, has been very supportive of the team. They gave the captain everything he wanted. Coaches have come and gone - most of whom went on to other successful coaching assignments. Selection panels followed the same path. The common denominator however remained. This unfortunately proved unsuccessful.

Smith has finally gone as well. Cricket South Africa will hopefully appoint a new coach with no allegiance to the current players. Someone who can stamp fresh authority on the team. The board will also, I hope, find a quality individual as captain, who will bring back the principle that playing for your country is the ultimate privilege and not a given right.

It is inevitable that the "choker" label will remain until South Africa win the World Cup. In the meanwhile the best solution from the players' point of view is to focus on getting better as far as technique, temperament and physical conditioning are concerned. Cricket South Africa will, no doubt, concentrate on finding the right people to take the team forward in an attempt to create a more professional and vibrant element that will enable the unquestionable talent that exists in the country to develop to its fullest.

There are many good young players coming through the system in this country who fit the bill in every respect. They deserve the right guidance and structure. I am sure Cricket South Africa will provide them with exactly that and give them the opportunity to develop into a World Cup-winning combination.

Kepler Wessels is a former South Africa captain