SA forget mind games and focus on skill
Though South Africa have not recruited a psychologist for this World Cup, the addition of Michael Hussey and his inputs on mindset and technique can help them acclimatise to pressure better
After more than two decades of trying to change their fortunes at major tournaments, South Africa have stopped.
"We have not had a psychologist with us for the past eight or nine months. I'd like our team to focus on their skills," Russell Domingo, South Africa's coach said. "If you get your skills right, you can mentally get yourself into a good space to execute under pressure, not the other way round. You can't be mentally strong but have bad skills."
Ability is the one area where South Africa well stocked and it is the only aspect of the game that falls within the controllables that Domingo and his sizeable support staff can work with. So that's what they're doing.
In preparation for India, South Africa have called in their regular consultant Gary Kirsten and Australian World Cup-winner Michael Hussey in addition to the three bowling coaches - Allan Donald, Charl Langeveldt and Claude Henderson - they have on hand. Six specialists might seem excessive but Domingo explained that each of them has a specific responsibility and that helped the team cover more bases.
"The most important thing about them is their personalities. They are really good people. They come across really well. They don't impose in the space. They're respectful of the space they're working in, and don't try to flood players with information" he said. "Hussey is an experienced player; he knows what he would expect from a coach. Gary is an experienced coach. He's been with the side for a long time and he knows when to give information and when not to give information."
Kirsten and Langeveldt are old friends of the South African set-up and their presence is not considered an intrusion. Both played in it, Kirsten coached in it and they are regulars of the pre-practice football warm-ups. Cries of "Gazza," as Kirsten attempts a header on goal and "Chico," as Langeveldt muscles the ball through mid-field are common. It's like having your friend from high-school at your wedding. You want him to see how far you've come and how well you've done but you also want him to be there if it all goes wrong.
Hussey, however, is different. The mere sight of him in a South African shirt seems unusual but it seems South Africa are hoping for an osmosis of sorts, from one champion to whom they hope will be future champions.
"He's a guy who has won a World Cup as a player. He's been in pressure situations in Australia. He's played under these conditions for a long period of time, so his presence alone will serve as a big form of motivation for our players," Domingo explained. "He's known as a very thoughtful cricketer. He plans meticulously in his personal game. Hopefully some the things that he's learnt playing in competitions like this he can pass on to our players - whether it's in their mental preparations, their tactical strategy when going out to bat under pressure, whether it's just thinking under certain conditions. I'm not expecting him to help us to get 500 runs in the next ODI we play."
In calling on Hussey, South Africa are working on the mental side of the game, just in a different way and Domingo said they have been doing that over the last seven months. "In every series we've played there has been a mention of the World Cup coming and trying to put ourselves under pressure. I think it was against Pakistan where we were ahead in the series after four games and we said, 'Let's approach the fifth game as though it is a World Cup quarter-final.' In subtle ways, putting ourselves under pressure."
Come Sunday, there will be nothing subtle about the pressure on South Africa. The MCG is close to being sold out and the majority of the fans will be supporting the opposition. It is not a final, but six weeks from now, it could be and that's what South Africa will try and tell themselves as they take on what an Indian journalist called, "cricket's rockstars, or at least that's what they think they are."
On a stage that big, South Africa are hoping skills and not luck will win out. Hence the emphasis on the controllables. The players' families arrived at the start of the week to keep them grounded just when they are at risk from the hype.
"Having the families here can only benefit the players," Domingo said "Instead of just going back to the room and thinking about training, they have to look after their kids and take their wives out to dinner. It's a good distraction to have."
As good as net sessions instead of crystal-ball gazing.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent