Proteas only play when it counts

2013-06-29 00:00

THE Champions Trophy has finished, the Proteas are back home, and Gary Kirsten has started a new life after his two-year coaching contract expired. Oh yes, there’s also the small matter of AB de Villiers’s men not making the final after being flattened by hosts England in the semi-final.

It’s such an old joke that stale cannot even define what it means anymore. As soon as England sealed their seven-wicket win, the cries back in South Africa erupted once more — “We are chokers. We’ve done it again and failed at a major cricket tournament”. Ho- hum. We have heard it all before and it doesn’t even stir emotions any longer. Let’s come up with something different. Let’s find a new word. Why not go completely against the grain and find the good in the scenario. Now there’s a challenge guaranteed to be tougher than trying to win any major sporting trophy.

Let’s look at what “choking” in sport means. According to the most popular definition, it means “the failure of a team to win a game or tournament when the team had been strongly favoured to win or had squandered a large lead in the late stages of the event”. The final was a classic example. England choked chasing a modest 130 in 20 overs for victory and seemingly comfortable needing 48 from 30 balls. It looked even better with 19 needed from the last two overs, but it was not to be, England finishing on 124, six runs short. Err … a choke perhaps?

Were we ever favoured to win the tournament? Did we squander a large lead or strong advantage against England? As captain De Villiers rightly said after the game, “You have to be winning, then lose, to be called chokers.”

Ahead of this tournament, there was no massive hype from the Protea camp indicating we would arrive, see and conquer.

It was quite the contrary. We had been beaten on home soil in a one-day series against New Zealand and had sneaked home in the deciding match against Pakistan soon after. That was it. There were no more games to balance the side or look at possible selection formulas. Some of the players went off to the IPL — a totally different mindset — and secretly, everyone crossed fingers in hope that we would do well rather than wager a bet on genuine belief that we could. And so it came to pass. Kirsten had said on the eve of departure that he believed we could go all the way if we got the basics right and read the game well. As he said, “It’s only five games and we need to play each one as a final”.

With the team we had, missing the big two of Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis, joined by Morné Morkel after the first game, we were already handicapped. We battled gamely against India, showed what we were capable of against Pakistan, had luck on our side (for once) against the West Indies and looked like rabbits in the headlights against England.

History will recall we copped a fair hiding from England in the semi-final. So what? A contest has to have a loser and we must take it on the chin and still stand tall. Show humility and look for the good in the tournament, and there were some positives.

For one, we progressed further than Australia. At least we reached the semis with a side that most people knew was young and not as strong as it could have been. Players and coaches had hinted the team were still trying to stabilise and find the right combinations. “We have the best players, but they need to know where and how they fit into the mix”, was the outlook.

Tough as it was, the tournament gave up-and-coming youngsters the chance to taste the big league and step up to the mark.

Again, there were positives — Chris Morris, called up to replace Morkel, was raw and gangly, yet he gave of his best and was a fierce competitor. His foundations have been laid.

David Miller looked composed and settled at this level, adding vital runs when needed and none more so than his half century against England, which saved the Proteas from complete embarrassment. He has created a reputation to move forward from.

Robin Peterson showed character in all situations as batsman and bowler. Colin Ingram looked polished against Pakistan and the rest of the team chipped in. Most are still learning and the report card should not be ultra-critical, thereby ruining whatever confidence is present.

The greatest fact is this — cricket in coloured clothing and with a white ball may draw the crowds and provide entertainment, and that’s what it is — entertainment. Real cricket is played in whites, over five days, with twists and turns, strategy and skill around every corner. That’s the true test and that is where South Africa rules the world. We are at the top of the Test rankings and although there is no trophy as such, we have the mace in our cabinet.

Take heart. We play proper cricket when it counts. Anything else is a bonus.

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