Choke of the old block

Gutted: Graeme Smith has no answer to his team’s failures in crucial matches.

This time too it wasn’t meant for South Africa. As the Proteas went through a gamut of emotions during their quarterfinal loss at the hands of New Zealand, not even the Waka Waka (this time for Africa) song blaring at the Sher-e-Bangla National Stadium in Dhaka during breaks could inspire the Africans to shed the chokers’ tag.

Graeme Smith appeared gutted during the post-match press meet and it was hard not to feel for the out-going one-day captain when a scribe asked him ‘should you (South Africans) be referred to as jokers instead of chokers from henceforth’. At the same time, it’s also hard to understand as to how South Africa — despite an abundance of talent and experience in their ranks — repeatedly manage to pull off such stunning defeats. It’s also unfathomable that these otherwise tough as nails bunch of professionals appear like rabbits blinded by glaring headlights at the slightest hint of pressure.

Much as South Africa may frown at the mention of the C-word, it only appears fair now to label them so after their second debacle in just over two weeks’ time. Ever since the 1996 World Cup, when Brian Lara’s century ended their unbeaten run in the quarterfinal at Karachi, the Proteas have failed to solve this knockout puzzle. Times have changed and there is a change in personnel since they went down to the West Indies, but one thing has remained the same. As much as they have imbibed the unparalleled skills of their previous generation, they have also inherited this unique ability to crumble at the crunch.   

Tough questions will be asked now and heads may roll -- even if they are meant only for cosmetic purposes -- to control the backlash, a reality not lost on Smith. “We came over here and we gave our best,” he said when asked to analyse the defeat. “I can’t fault the way this team has trained or prepared. We have given our best at all the times. When the team gets on plane and goes home, daggers are going to be out, stones thrown at and whatever...  There’s a group of 25 people here and we just have to take it on the chin,” he remarked.

On the other hand, New Zealand, given hope only in hell and not merely because of their horrific run of defeats in the sub-continent in the run up to the World Cup, were a study in contrast. Given their pool of talent in the country, they will be cricket’s perennial underdogs but how the tiny nation has managed to go beyond its miniscule size is some lesson that South Africa will do well to learn. After all, six semifinals in the tournament’s 36-year-old history is no mean achievement for a team like New Zealand.

“You can look at it that way,” retorted Kiwi skipper Daniel Vettori when asked why they have failed to go beyond the semifinals on five previous occasions. “But if you ask me, it’s an amazing achievement for a country so small. People put a negative slang on us, but it’s a wonderful achievement for us,” he reasoned.

Without saying in as many words Vettori gave away that the old South African failing had given them a hope even while defending a modest total of 221. “They have proven match-winners, no doubt about that. But there was a sense of belief that if we could get into the South African middle-order, we would have a chance.”

Jacques Kallis’ dismissal was a major breakthrough but AB de Villiers’ run-out turned the match on its head. The Kiwis sensed the opportunity and were all over South Africa like a bad rash. They attacked relentlessly and even resorted to gamesmanship which proved too much for the Proteas to handle and it wasn’t long before they crumbled.

“I think it’s been going on since 1992,” Smith admitted. “We are not the only World Cup team that hasn’t gone on to win the Cup, there are lots of teams and players that have come before us. Hopefully in the future the players who get the opportunity will go all the way. And somewhere in the future when asked, we can say South Africa has won the World Cup and that will be terrific. I think the type of players we have, we deserve it some way but otherwise I don’t have much to say,” he stated.

Would he blame it on destiny then? “I think that’s hiding from reality,” Smith felt. “I don’t think the fans back home would like me to say it wasn’t in our destiny to win. We got to take responsibility as a team. We can only look at ourselves in the mirror and blame ourselves. There is no other way to look at it. We got to be honest with ourselves that we weren’t good enough.”

As simple as that.

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