Guest Column

How the Proteas made losing an art

2017-06-18 00:01
Chris Morris of South Africa reacts to the team’s poor form during the International Cricket Council’s Champions Trophy match between India and South Africa at the Kia Oval cricket ground. Picture: Getty Images/AP

Chris Morris of South Africa reacts to the team’s poor form during the International Cricket Council’s Champions Trophy match between India and South Africa at the Kia Oval cricket ground. Picture: Getty Images/AP

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Luke Alfred

Watching Shane Warne play cricket was always an exercise in theatre. Warne used to pause at the top of his mark, nonchalantly tossing the ball from hand to hand. He knew the match could not progress without him – and the batsman, the umpires, the expectant crowd, all had to wait. And so he stood, insouciant, wresting a few precious seconds from the spectacle. Opposite stood the batsman, twitchy if he was lucky, doom-shadowed if he was not.

Commentators twittered. Spectators drew breath. Even the busy little boys, understanding at some level deep in their bones, stood momentarily still.

Then the famous eight paces – a purposeful stroll, nothing more – before he attacked the crease and the ball snapped and fizzed. With Warne bowling in a stadium you felt his audacity, the monstrosity of his ego, his mastery of time. It was a cricket pageant, full of epic sweep. Pure unadulterated theatre.

Contrast Warne’s refusal to be hurried with the Proteas’ deranged, thoughtless scramble against India in the Champions Trophy on Sunday. Batting first, there was slow scoring to begin with, even the normally freewheeling Quinton de Kock looking strangely out of sorts.

De Kock and his partner, Hashim Amla – he of the supple wrists and the hauteur – are not the greatest of runners in pressure situations and it showed. There were a couple of close shaves before Amla, struggling with his timing, feathered a catch to MS Dhoni behind the stumps; De Kock, misjudging a sweep, went soon afterwards, and suddenly AB de Villiers was at the crease.

Surely South Africa’s best batsman would see this fidgety start right?

Early impressions were good. De Villiers kissed a couple of drives into the covers, played one shot gracefully off his nose. Then came the descent into madness. Faf du Plessis, his partner and someone who has played with him since his first team days at Affies in Pretoria 15 years ago, called him for a single. De Villiers accepted the call and was run out by centimetres, the dismissal a replica of what happened six years ago in a World Cup quarterfinal against New Zealand in Dhaka in Bangladesh.

Nothing had changed

Worse was to follow. Soon after De Villiers’ run-out, Du Plessis and David Miller found themselves stranded at the same end. The verb is the correct one, for it speaks of being lost, without a map or compass home. Truth be told, the Proteas had been lost in this competition long before now. They had overcome some difficult moments against Sri Lanka to romp to victory, but all the psychological fragilities were laid bare in losing by 19 runs on the Duckworth-Lewis method against Pakistan at Edgbaston in Birmingham a couple of days later.

It was at Edgbaston 18 years ago when Hansie Cronje’s South African team tied a World Cup semifinal against Steve Waugh’s Australian squad, Warne bowling two immaculate spells which defined the game. The abiding image from that match is of Lance Klusener and Allan Donald being stranded – that word – at the same end, exactly what transpired to Du Plessis and Miller against India at the Oval.

Matches may come and go. Series may be won and lost. But there we were, stranded back in 1999. Time had marched on, but nothing had changed. South African cricket, with all its noble transformation criteria, with all its independent directors and money in the bank, could not coax a victory from some of the highest paid cricketers in the world.

Truth be told, they did not know how.

Who would have thought that knockout cricket on the international stage could be so eerily reminiscent of The Eagles’ Hotel California, a bad dream place where “You can check out any time you like/ But you can never leave”?

Run-outs in cricket are what own goals are to football, what knock-ons are to rugby. Not only do they speak of the shifting psychological tides that ebb and flow through any game, they speak of something repressed breaking the surface. What is repressed in South African cricket is a debilitating fear of failure, a fear magnified – and so, given life – by the fact that we live in a shame-based culture which deems it shameful to fail. The fear of failure leads to panic and panic leads to actual failure, an almost sinister closing of the circle. Once panic sets in, you have run-outs and peculiar decisions, the kind of Gothic hauntings that we thought we might have got rid of.

One practical way to offset panic is to know yourself well enough to breathe deeply and take stock – to do, in other words, what Warne did naturally as he stood at the top of his mark and slowed the game down to his pace. Warne never allowed himself to become subservient to the game and context in which he was playing, no matter how heightened. He always strove for mastery of time, a prelude to mastering the opposition.

You might have expected better from the well-travelled, widely played Proteas players such as Amla, Du Plessis and De Villiers, but such is the weight of history that they crumpled like popped balloons. To see such fine players reduced to such quaking incompetents at the Oval was heart-breaking.

Some of the blame for all of this must be placed at Cricket SA’s (CSA’s) door. Russell Domingo, the national coach, has been asked to reapply for his job and has so far shown great reluctance to do so. If ever you wanted to destabilise a national coach going into a major international tournament, you pull this kind of trumped-up trick masquerading as a legal requirement. Domingo can hardly be blamed for not feeling the love. A tough four-Test series against England is hovering and he is not feeling wanted. Who could blame him if he quietly gave up?

Then there’s the matter of CSA failing abysmally to formally (and publically) address the Proteas’ shocking record in both 50-over and T20 international cricket going back 20 years. The secret to unravelling the conundrum surely lies in creating a culture of candour within the team – a point well made this week by Paddy Upton, Gary Kirsten’s number two when Kirsten was national coach. Said Upton: “It is very much the ‘cowboys don’t cry’ culture, and players are generally scared of revealing themselves and making themselves vulnerable. When AB spoke of being a little anxious in the team huddle on day two – I think it was – of the second Test against England in 2012, you could just feel the relief because other guys were feeling it too.”

After the Proteas’ failure to reach the second round of the World T20 finals in India last March, CSA brought in Francois Pienaar and Adam Bacher, among others, to head up an independent review of national teams. After initial enthusiasm, the review was abandoned, with CSA suspiciously citing lack of clarity on the review’s scope. Now we find ourselves in the same situation.

Will CSA launch another review to get to the bottom of the Proteas’ recent failures in England, only to mothball it when the public’s outcry has subsided? Or, will they establish a review to review the failure of the last review? Your guess is as good as mine.

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Read more on:    csa  |  proteas
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