Was that the Proteas' choke?

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Robin Peterson and Imran Tahir (Gallo Images)
Robin Peterson and Imran Tahir (Gallo Images)
Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

Cape Town – First, the good news: South Africa’s shock defeat to England at Chennai arguably hasn’t done too much damage to their drive for a quarter-final place at the World Cup, even if it suddenly opens up Group B a little more.

And it is tempting to suggest some even better news: perhaps this was the juncture, still relatively early in the slow-bubbling event, where Graeme Smith’s team got the obligatory CWC “choke game” out of their systems ... whilst very much living to tell the tale in 2011.

Yes, for the moment they are knocked off top spot in the group, as the fast train is unexpectedly forced into a siding. But isn’t that better than derailing on a bend and tumbling down a ravine?

Even the hard-to-please Ray Jennings, a former Proteas coach, pointed out on television after the agonising six-run reverse that he did not envisage the current squad “falling apart” because of this match, which nevertheless gave England a timely lifeline.

South Africa must now regroup to face the main host nation, India, in Nagpur on Saturday: I would suggest this far out that it is a 50-50 game, each team having shown some obvious strengths and a frailty or two at the World Cup thus far.

Nor is it a do-or-die affair, because still to follow for the Proteas are Ireland in Kolkata and Bangladesh at Mirpur.

And as Jennings further noted: “This loss was (a reminder) to keep their feet on the ground.”

Certainly things had been going well – almost too well – for Smith’s troops in early activity on the Subcontinent, with bullying wins over West Indies and the Netherlands and then some powerful positions, too, against their modern ODI bogey side England.

Bowling them out for 171 and then being 63/0 and later 124/3 in reply, you have to say it is well-nigh scandalous that the Proteas could not complete the job, albeit that this was an enthralling match primarily to those inclined toward masochism.

As popular commentator David “Bumble” Lloyd put it, this contest was fought out on a “scruffy” pitch not dissimilar to “a day four Test one”.

It was slow and abrasive, which brought reverse swing into the equation more and more as the heart-stopper dragged on (England could certainly be said to have been beneficiaries of a good toss) and there was quite violent turn at times, into the bargain.

Maybe it was the kind of lotto-like “nasty” Andrew Strauss’s mentally tired globetrotters needed to finally kick-start their campaign, as they had looked a rabble on truer, more batting-friendly surfaces leading up to it.

As much as Graeme Swann was a constant factor with his prodigious off-spin, this was also the match in which their keynote seamers Stuart Broad and James Anderson, exploiting the track’s unhesitating deterioration, bounced back from some awful respective CWC “tap” ahead of it.

We must not, of course, simply brush off South Africa’s shortcomings in Chennai.

With due respect to England defiantly knocking the lid off their supposed coffin from the inside, any suggestion (and there always plenty of people worldwide quite delighted to venture it) that the Proteas did, indeed, choke here cannot be disregarded, I’m afraid.

There were times when they appeared to bat themselves into a hole – especially when and just after three wickets fell on the same score – and if there were doubts about the sturdiness of the Proteas’ middle order before they even left for India, they will hardly vanish into thin air now.

On a more chipper note, tail-ender Dale Steyn showed a healthy backbone in trying his damndest to salvage the situation with a mixture of competent watchfulness and sporadic use of the long handle, so it is not as though South Africa surrendered whimpering.

But they know they have some weaknesses to mull over, including also a creeping little problem with the form of their two most seasoned batsmen, Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis.

The normally metronomic latter has registered a paltry tournament tally of 21 runs from three completed innings, while the captain continues to scrap it out grimly before getting out when seemingly having done the hard yards.

“Biff” loves to be a dominator at the crease but his 87 runs (average 29) come at a strike rate of 57, which tells you the struggle he is currently having with his timing and maybe also technique in the middle.

As far as the bowling and fielding are concerned, the Proteas can move ahead with completely unbudged confidence, however.

There is a sparkling revolution in progress, let’s not forget, with the South Africans - for the first time at a World Cup - embracing spin as a supplementary device to their old pace strength to a tangible degree.

Imran Tahir continues along his merry, wicket-taking way (11 scalps now), and Robin Peterson came to the party to sensational effect against England after opening the bowling.

Revealing fact: the Proteas have bowled 72.3 overs of slow fare in three matches for 19 wickets. Only 55.3 overs of pace or seam have been employed, with a return of nine wickets.

And both trades, frankly, look suitably incisive.

All is certainly not lost ...
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