Proteas: Fragility tag inevitable now

Chris Morris (Getty)
Chris Morris (Getty)

Cape Town – Dear oh dear, as they might lament in language ever so slightly associated with yesteryear.

South Africa’s timing was glaringly imperfect as they frittered away the pivotal second one-day international against England at Southampton on Saturday from a seemingly powerful, winning position.

Coming just a week, and two matches, shy of their start to the ICC Champions Trophy against Sri Lanka at The Oval on Saturday, it would have done little to subdue the historically-based doubts among cricket pundits that they cut it mentally when the heat cranks up to very highest levels.

The Proteas, who needed 10 runs to win with that many deliveries and five wickets to spare in the high-scoring Rose Bowl clash to level the three-game series, somehow failed to get over the line.

It left them with a dead-rubber third encounter against the increasingly emboldened host nation at Lord’s on Monday (12:00 start, SA time), albeit an opportunity to stabilise the ship with a morale-lifting consolation triumph immediately before entering the big ‘un.

Although a surprising number of South Africans, in particular, don’t even know how to spell it, the “choker” label has predictably been tossed about again with some abandon on both unforgiving social media and in the slightly more measured cricket-specialist media.

It is never very far away from the Proteas anyway, given their formidable array of instances down the years where they have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in red-letter, multinational tournament encounters – often at pretty advanced stages of the events.

Still, there was (and even still is, maybe?) a case for arguing that the current batch of national limited-overs players had been relatively untainted and unscarred by infamous events of the past, like the Donald-Klusener Edgbaston mix-up at CWC 1999 and the Duckworth-Lewis miscalculation against Sri Lanka at the follow-up, home-staged tournament at Kingsmead in 2003.

More often in recent ICC jamborees, eternally bogey events since their win in the inaugural Champions Trophy of 1998 in Bangladesh, South Africa have tended to bow out in a more conventional, simply well-beaten manner -- albeit that the more naïve and unforgiving of their observers are more than happy to brandish the “choker” accusation, regardless of circumstance in exit.

So it was inconvenient, to put it quite mildly, that defeat at Southampton came in the frustrating, imploding fashion it did because, truth be told, South Africa did so much right in the formidable chase of 331 to win.

As veteran, 79-cap  former Proteas left-arm spinner Robin Peterson correctly observed in the SuperSport studio afterwards: “They batted well for 48.2 overs.”

Yet when push came to shove, the previously impressive, admirable David Miller and Chris Morris suddenly either could not get bat to ball at all, or with suitable conviction, as England’s bowlers right at the death stuck to their tasks with cool heads and found clever areas to land the ball (with some deft pace and length change-ups as well).

Truth be told, the Proteas’ problems in those dramatic last few minutes seemed more technical than mental to me; both batsmen demonstrated body language that was considerably more assured – at least outwardly - than it was frail.

You did get a powerful sense from them, early in the 49th over: “We’ve got this wrapped up.”

With the run requirement looking increasingly less taxing, though, there was a case for saying they might have adopted more of a “look for the gaps” approach than attempt to bludgeon or swat furiously at each delivery as the tension mounted.

Legendary international wicketkeeper-batsman Mark Boucher, another of the TV analysts, said he felt there was “a bit too much moving around at the crease” (by the pair) toward the climax.

Morris, Miller and plenty of others in a SA side well-balanced in age terms do not, frankly, look like players of weak heart.

Up to the Rose Bowl fixture, the majority of this particular bunch of Proteas representatives had also won their fair share of genuinely high-stakes ODI matches … like when they came from 2-0 down on home turf in 2015/16 to nose out the very England 3-2, and more recently clinched the decisive fifth ODI in New Zealand from a tantalising 2-2 situation.

Those are encouraging signs of sturdy mental fettle, surely?

But now that infernal ‘c’ word is fluttering about conspicuously, all over again.

With just five days to go to their Champions Trophy push-off, AB de Villiers’s charges have simply got to try to live with it …

*Rob Houwing will be attending the Champions Trophy for Sport24. Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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