Luke Alfred

Why South Africa need to liberate themselves from shame

They're a very good ODI side, if only they can change the culture of their cricket

Luke Alfred
Quinton de Kock embraces Hashim Amla, West Indies v South Africa, 6th match, ODI tri-series, St Kitts

It's down to South Africa's senior players to take the initiative when it comes to changing the culture  •  AFP

I'm running out of things to say about South African cricket. This is partly because, as far as the ODI side is concerned, they seem to be developing and stuck fast at the same time. Here, after all, is a team that won two big series in the last eight months, beating India (away) 3-2 in October and beating England (home) by the same margin in February. In countries with less difficult-to-please punters (and press) they would be given grudging dues as emerging champions. Not here.
The recent busy tinkering under the bonnet seems to have paid dividends. They've jettisoned David Miller, re-embraced Wayne Parnell, and are learning to trust Aaron Phangiso and Tabraiz Shamsi. They also seem to have realised that there is life without Dale Steyn. Morne Morkel made the XI only at the start of the final leg of matches in the current tri-series, on the quicker wickets in Barbados.
There is newly discovered rigour from the selectors and a comparative sense of liberation in playing away from home. The cobwebs seem to have been shaken off after a poor opening performance against West Indies - and Sunil Narine - in Providence. Here is a team beginning to draw together. Onwards and upwards.
Why is it, then, that questions still circle like vultures? Part of the reason why the Proteas are growing, yet remain strangely static is to be found in the culture of South African cricket. It is an aspect that is always important but never discussed, because it's always displaced by the self-loathing debates about race. South Africa is, by and large, a shame-based culture - one in which it is shameful to fail.
Strange as it might sound, this partly accounts for why South Africa are such notoriously slow starters, particularly against top-tier opposition at home - witness the last three home Test series against England. Paralysed by insecurity and a well-developed fear of failure, they play their sport not to lose (rather than to win), inadvertently conspiring with the very conditions that increase their chances of losing.
Having lost early, they make it more difficult to win; this, paradoxically, is what helps them to win because only now are they able to find their true worth as fine cricketers. It's both very funny and very messed-up but the statistics tend to suggest that it's true. The trope has been continued in the most recent World T20, where South Africa lost their first match, at the Wankhede Stadium, to England. (That loss in Mumbai was close, to be sure, but it was a loss nonetheless.)
The limitations of a shame-based culture are best addressed when those in charge give their teams permission to take the risks inherent in aggressively chasing victory
The ODI series at home against England four months ago followed this very pattern. Two down with three to play, they won game three, squeaked home in game four, in Johannesburg, and clinched the series by winning in Cape Town.
Life would have been so much easier had they started off well, yet they can't start off strongly because there are too many demons flapping about their heads. Shame is a great spur and they need to flirt with it to be truly galvanised. The same thing has happened in the Caribbean, where Sunday night's washed out game in Barbados was going to be crucial in the outcome of the series given South Africa's early losses. Now it's up to them to win their final game against West Indies, while half-hoping that Australia beat West Indies before them. It's going to be an interesting few days.
The limitations of a shame-based culture are best addressed when those in charge give their teams permission to take the risks inherent in aggressively chasing victory. This is exactly what has happened in New Zealand, but it has taken 20 years for every piece of the puzzle to fall into place. In 1994, Ken Rutherford brought a New Zealand side to South Africa, making it abundantly clear that he was prepared to lose in seeking to win. Martin Crowe played his part in the establishment of this culture, and Stephen Fleming carried the baton. This, in part, is why Brendon McCullum found it easy to be adventurous - the ground was fertile and well-prepared.
There has been some subterranean shifting of the plates in South African cricket (finally, the elevation of Shamsi) but we're still short of the required earthquake. Either Russell Domingo and Adi Birrell drive the culture forward from within the team, or there's a wholesale cultural change from the board.
The latter is unlikely to happen because, one, they're all accountants and bankers, fixated on money and race, and two, they're simply not administratively courageous or creative enough, already having allowed an investigation into last season's Test and T20 failures to fall by the wayside. This means that the responsibility for change must come from within the group, the senior players like AB de Villiers, Hashim Amla and Faf du Plessis in conjunction with the coaching staff.
Evidence of change can take many forms. It might be a good corrective to the culture of slow starts to start winning early, but it might also be a good start by acknowledging the pervasive culture of shame. With it might come liberation - the liberation an already very good side need to make them just that little bit more convincing.

Luke Alfred is a journalist based in Johannesburg