Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent
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Choke. It's the only word that matters. After a campaign filled with renewed hope, experiments that worked, personnel changes, a new-age psychological plan and five clinical wins in the group stage, when it mattered most, nothing had changed. South Africa choked.
It's harsh and it's unforgiving but it's what South African cricket will have to deal with after their classic collapse against New Zealand. The crumble happened with the bat, when 108 for 2 became 172 all out. In the space of 24 balls, Jacques Kallis fell to a superb catch, JP Duminy played what may go down as the worst shot of the tournament and AB de Villiers was run out. The core of the line-up was brutally snatched out of the chase and the rest couldn't patch up the glaring hole they left behind.
What happened physically doesn't matter so much, though, because the real failing was in the mind. What possessed Duminy to attempt what was supposed to be a cut shot, but instead became horribly disfigured and allowed the ball to crash into his stumps? What possessed Faf du Plessis to call for a single when he had hit the ball to short midwicket, and could see a fielder swooping in? And why did he end up a third of the way down the pitch when de Villiers had not moved? Why couldn't the likes of Johan Botha and Robin Peterson get it together after the wobble and guide the team through the 100 runs they still needed?
Pat Symcox told ESPNcricinfo that the answer lies not in batting, bowling and fielding, but in the fourth aspect of cricket: in the mind. And at crucial times, it seems that it's the opposition who have the upperhand in that department, despite all the changes South Africa have made. The signs that South Africa are not mentally strong enough to summit a challenge like the knockouts - where they have still not won a single World Cup match in six tournaments - had never completely left.
A few weeks before arriving in the subcontinent, they lost the second of five one-dayers against India, at the Wanderers, from a winning position. Again, it was a batting collapse that caused the defeat, with South Africa losing 7 for 69 in chase of 191, and it exposed their fragile middle order. After that match, Graeme Smith arrived at the post-match press conference looking only a little less gutted than he did on Friday. Not one of the journalists there dared ask him the 'choking question' and he looked in no mood to answer it. It was left hanging in the air, and it was something that Smith and the squad were able to escape dealing with.
South Africa lost the next match in that series as well, but came from 2-1 down to win the series 3-2, and all talk of being mentally weak was shelved. They arrived in the subcontinent two weeks after their series triumph, and were greeted by a squadron of journalists who only wanted to know one thing: how will they shed the chokers' tag? It's the kind of question that buzzes about from press conference to press conference like a mosquito; it bites in all the most uncomfortable places and it's just damn irritating. But it's the one that will keep getting asked until South Africa win a major ICC trophy, and even then it will be asked in a different form.
From those early days of South Africa's World Cup campaign, it was evident that that question would be their bug bear. Some of the team members, like Duminy and Botha, took it in their stride and answered that they thought it was unfair they were labelled with that tag because this was a squad of fresh faces. Others didn't handle it as well. Sometimes the word choker didn't even have to be used at all; simple questions about dealing with pressure or mental conditioning would get their backs up. Their reactions said that all was not well when it came to even talking about, never mind dealing with, pressure.
Smith was the fieriest. He lost it in Delhi, asking a journalist who persisted in asking him how the team dealt with nerves, "So you've been out there in the middle, have you?" He was snappy and abrupt, and he shut many of the questioners up. After the first win against West Indies, the questions died down and after the thumping of Netherlands, they had almost disappeared.
When South Africa did the mini-choke against England, they returned. Smith was a different man that day. He arrived sombre and almost docile. He still got riled up when he was asked questions he didn't like, but his answers were less biting and more thoughtful. Something seemed to have clicked, and Smith and the team were gentler, and seemed less affected by tense situations during the games against India, Ireland and Bangladesh. They didn't even go into their quarter-final clash with New Zealand as smug as they may have, considering they topped their group and drew relatively modest opposition for the first knockout match.
Some said the choke was over and done with against England. Others, who steered clear of the word, said the England match had taught South Africa how to deal with that sort of pressure, and that if they encountered it again, they would know what to do. In truth, they did not encounter it again until this match. India challenged them, but they were always in control. Ireland had them against the ropes but South Africa were always just a few jabs away from a dominant position. New Zealand presented a different challenge.
They got their breakthroughs out of nowhere, surprising South Africa by dismissing Kallis and then de Villiers. The run-out that ended de Villiers' innings is probably what changed the game, because the body language of the New Zealand fielders changed after it. They strutted around as though they had purpose, while South Africa's batsmen were walking with their shoulders drooped and their heads bowed.
Some of the New Zealand players even had an altercation with du Plessis, perhaps trying to mess with his psyche by telling him he had run out his senior partner. They wanted to dig deeper into the batting line-up. Daniel Vettori, New Zealand's captain, said after the game: "There was a sense of belief that if we could get in to the South African middle order we would have a chance."
The England match had shown the middle order up as soft, and just as it had started hardening, New Zealand melted it. The pressure New Zealand applied was different to what any other team had, because New Zealand knew they could only win by taking 10 wickets, and so had to snuff out the middle order. New Zealand didn't back off, as India had in Nagpur; their fielding was sharp, the bowling was strangling and it was apparent they were going to hold on to their advantage with all it took. That's the kind of pressure South Africa caved under.
What will be important is that they accept the reality of it, that they see it for what it was - a faltering when things became too difficult - and not sugarcoat it as anything else. If South Africa are able to confront the mental aspect of the game head on, and not hide behind gimmicks, there's every chance the wounds can heal fast. The danger will arise if they don't, and if they allow the chokers' tag to be hung around their necks, while silently trying to shrug it off and publicly pretending it's not there. Then, it will become a noose again.