South Africa look to shake chokers' tag
Mental strength is not a trait historically associated with South African teams at ICC events. A string of underwhelming performances - the dispiriting semi-final tie with Australia at the 1999 World Cup, the infamous run miscalculation at home four years later and a lacklustre 2007 campaign in the Caribbean - have blighted an otherwise impressive set of achievements for a nation consistently ranked among cricket's elite.
The result has been a chokers' tag that has proven increasingly asphyxiating with each late-series failure. Indeed, barely a tournament goes by without Graeme Smith being asked to account for the team's past capitulations, and with the World Twenty20 entering the home straight, the South African captain is presumably prepared for more of the same.
The recent Test series victory in Australia and an unprecedented seven consecutive Twenty20 international wins have convinced many - oddsmakers included - that South Africa are ready to break their duck and raise a major international trophy. Others, including many battle-scarred South African supporters, fear they have merely positioned themselves for a particularly hard fall.
The truth will inevitably be revealed over the coming days, but Jeremy Snape is quietly optimistic of a favourable outcome. Since accepting the role as South Africa's sports psychologist and performance coach, Snape has been charged with preparing players for the mental and emotional challenges of top-level cricket. Or, in other words, to rid South Africa of the chokers' tag that has dogged them since readmission.
Initial results have been impressive, to say the least. South Africa's successful fourth innings pursuit of Australia's 413-run target in the Perth Test indicated a degree of mental resolve all but absent in previous touring sides. That was followed with a series-clinching nine-wicket victory at the MCG, an ascension to the No. 1 ODI ranking and an undefeated World Twenty20 campaign heading into the semi-finals. All that is missing is the silverware.
"I remember reading a piece written last year about South Africa shaking off the chokers' tag, and I think everyone saw how mentally strong a side they were in Australia," Snape told Cricinfo. "Chasing down 450 was not about one epic day, it was about winning most of the individual battles that happened that day.
"Statisticians and the media are great at pointing out trends, but that doesn't mean we're spending a lot of time going over the same points. Whatever has happened to South African teams in the past has happened with a specific management group, specific players and in specific match conditions. This is a fresh management group, fresh players and new match conditions."
Snape is adamant that the psychological lessons from South Africa's Test series in Australia are applicable to the World Twenty20. Countless training hours have been devoted to working on players' powers of concentration during individual moments of matches. Process over outcome, in psychologist-ese.
"I think everyone now recognises that this is the biggest area for improvement in cricket," he said. "Twenty20 is cricket at its most volatile. The more volatile and stressful the contest, the more the need to prepare your players to be able to mentally cope with it. Ultimately, a Twenty20 match boils down to 120 contests in each innings. If you are mentally ready to control the majority of those situations, to be able to handle that stress, then you're a long way towards winning.
"What we're seeing in the IPL and the World Twenty20 is some of the most pressurised phases of the game played. Just in the last week or so we've seen how pressure affects bowlers at the death, fielders struggling to execute run outs and batsmen playing wild strokes. Those are features of players under lots of pressure. Everything feels like it is being played at triple the speed. The South African guys have been really impressive with the way they've looked to unpick these situations."
Tuesday's match at Trent Bridge may have been inconsequential to the configuration of the World Twenty20 semi-finals - South Africa were already in, India already out - but Smith's men would nonetheless have been elated to seal the win and carry momentum into the pointy end of the tournament.
Finals have historically proved South Africa's Achilles heel, but Snape is hopeful the cycle will soon be broken. "It's not that you're telling everyone 'don't think about the past', it's more about breaking everything down to their individual events," he said. "By focussing on each moment, you're not overcome by the grandeur of a situation. It sounds easy and perhaps even a little clichéd, but it only becomes tangible once you've worked on the ability to concentrate on individual situations and can replicate that in a stressful match environment."
Alex Brown is deputy editor of Cricinfo