Why South Africa choke so often at the World Cup
Robert Louis Stevenson once said, that 'The world is so full of a number of things, that I'm sure we all should be as happy as kings'. The second half of the statement will always remain a topic of debate and dissension -- for romantic poets tend to visualize the world with rose-tinted spectacles -- but I shall go this far, and perhaps only this far with Stevenson. The world is so full of a number of things. Penury and affluence, splendour and dirt, benevolence and malevolence, exaltation and humiliation, triumph and losses.
A bovine ascetic like Alastair Cook in an age of tattoos, boisterous hairdos and cocky attitudes is, err, a gross contrast. And a fairy-tale ending to a career that has exemplified grit, fortitude, and resilience, is a juxtaposition of sorts -- a statement that Virat Kohli would happily agree with after royally losing all his five tosses in England. But the world, is so full of a colossal number of things.
And the Rainbow Nation of South Africa has been one such phenomenon. South Africa is a multi-ethnic society encompassing a vast number of cultures and traditions, distributed over its 56 million residents making it the 24th most populous country in the world. It is the only country in Southern Africa that has had regular elections for almost a century, one that takes immense pride in its sporting achievements. And yes, it is hard to believe that a quarter of a century ago, it was a country that most international cricketers used to condemn from playing in, largely due to the despicable Apartheid policies of the government, which saw its exclusion from international cricket for 20 long years.
46 years later, South Africa is transformed. Its economy has metamorphosed into the second largest in Africa, only after Nigeria, and the experts who study such matters confidently predict that by 2020, it will replace Nigeria to be the largest African economy. Mathematics and economics is indeed somniferous -- I concede -- but these statistics cannot be of greater importance to a country that had been marred by White domination and political turmoil, for the major part of its history.
What we have today, is a country pacing forward at an astronomical speed. A developing country, the citizens of which deem themselves to be humble and polite, and attach incalculable desire to collectively emerge out of its cocoon and manifest to the world its true prowess. A developing country in every aspect.
Cricket emerged to be the uniting element in South Africa. When they saw Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock run through top class batting orders on foreign soil, South Africa's veins were filled with collective adulation, and a feeling of belonging not only to its bailiwick called international cricket, but also the global arena in which it had exhibited its capabilities and emerged as a top-notch cricket nation.
Much like how India interspersed its idea of 'littleness' to the 'Little' Master Tendulkar, South Africa had begun to view itself as a cricket-crazy nation, one in which sport was an emotion and continues to remain so.
The creation of emotion attached to sport in such a country was thus only natural, much like how it took place in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.
"Ever since I was a boy, I have had a recurring dream -- the same dream over and over again, to a point where the exact sequence of events could not be more vivid or clearer in my mind.
"It is the ICC Cricket World Cup Final, and I am fielding at cover. The batsman is left-handed and he drives, making a solid connection. I dive to my right, gather the ball at full stretch, spring to my feet, run towards the stumps and take off the bails. We all appeal. The umpire's finger is raised, and South Africa win the World Cup.
"Then, agitated and excited, I wake up....", writes AB de Villiers, the kingpin of the South African middle order until he decided earlier in the year to call it quits in international cricket.
Such is the emotion associated with a World Cup triumph in South Africa, that the epic separating scene of Jack and Rose from James Cameron's Titanic would only meekly bow its way out of competition. The sense of loss and desperation following successive World Cup humblings lingers in the minds of millions of South Africans; many dream, eat and sleep a World Cup victory.
In 1992, they were denied by the rain against England at Sydney, which left the scoreboard famously reading 'South Africa require 22 runs from 1 ball to win' -- owing to a senseless rain-rule; in 1996, they were eliminated by Brian Lara's century at Karachi after their premier fast bowler Allan Donald was left out of the side.
In 1999, in what turned out to the Proteas' most heartbreaking moment, Lance Klusenar hit two boundaries off the first two balls of the last over to make the equation 1 off 4, but Allan Donald at the non-striker's end ran him out off the penultimate ball. The match is tied, and Australia sneak through to the final, thanks to a higher finish in the Super Six table.Tens of thousands of boys and girls run to their bedrooms and cry.
Six Cricket World Cups since 1992, had offered so much hope. And ended up being national disappointments.
Maybe 2015 was going to be the year. Maybe 2015 was going to be the year, when a developing country of 56 million accomplish their dream, and banish the tag of 'chokers' that six consecutive World Cup losses had stamped upon them. Maybe 2015 was going to be the year when they bludgeon the wires that had been restricting them for 23 years, and revel in the piece of bronze that they collect. Maybe 2015 was going to be the year when a team of 14, lead by a world-beating captain, lives up to the expectations they'd inspired with consistent performances in the 50-overs format for a quarter of a century.
South Africa were favourites to lift the 2015 World Cup. But here they were at Auckland, unable to fathom the cause behind a seventh World Cup loss, missing it between the cup and the lip after a Grant Elliot six off the penultimate ball sealed the deal for New Zealand.
A seventh national disappointment.
To those before us, to those to come,
Today, tomorrow, we'll play as one.
AB de Villiers, South Africa's captain, was entering the World Cup on the back of a record-breaking fastest century off 31 balls. The Windies should've been sick of him already, but alas, he then smashed 162* off 66 balls against them, only to realize that he needn't have -- for the Joes from Carribean were eventually bundled out for a paltry 151. The occurrences on the cricket field are just a microscopic part of cricket. Much like the Kohli-Kumble saga, the Monkeygate fiasco, and the more recent ball-tampering scandals, a lot of the on-field happenings is influenced by what happens off it.
An accurate factorization of South Africa's blips on the big stage becomes a possibility only after knowledge of what happens during team meetings, intentional flights, and interpersonal conversations.
As the squad traveled to the 2015 Cricket World Cup, de Villiers bought a small green book and stuck the Proteas logo on the front cover. It was a pass-on book, intended to record the volition of every individual. de Villiers writes:
"After our send-off @ Melrose Arch, I can' help but think of the World Cup. I'm so excited. My adrenaline is already giving me sweaty palms. I know we're winning this Cup. I've been dreaming about it my whole life. I know you guys believe it too. The obstacles we will be confronted with might seem impossible to overcome at times, but fire in our hearts, the resilience we have and the trust for each other will overpower these challenges. To those before us, to those to come, today, tomorrow, we'll play as one."
After their loss to India in the second match of the World Cup, coach Russel Domingo writes:
"Yes, Parny had a tough game in the last game. I don't care because I know what he is capable of as a player. Yes, Immy will go for a boundary every now and then. Hash didn't score in the last game. The Rock wasn't there. But we will not lose hope as a team, boys, not one second. We know what we can do. We've seen Rilee bat in the nets. We've seen Quinton score three 100s in a row.
"I can go through every single name. Morras has been part of IPL winning teams. He can land a yorker when he wants to. I've seen that happen. I will not lose hope in any of you. And I'm expecting the same of you. There will be obstacles. We will be down and out in games coming up in the World Cup, but we are not going to stop the fight, gents. We're going to take it on, and we're going to run into the wall, together."
Compare that to Virat Kohli sharing a laugh with Shoaib Malik over an incident that happened years ago, right after his team has lost out in the final of the Champions Trophy against arch-rivals Pakistan. The confidence that Kohli inspires, is bound to triumph over the aura of collective team belief and emotion that de Villers and Domingo look to create through their little green book.
An instinctive Google search on 'Emotion and success' tells you the story. Lisa Feldman Barrett, in her brilliant book "How Emotions Are Made" recognizes that the idea of emotional granularity and the ability to suppress it are key to success. More so, in international sport, where teams like South Africa, India, and Bangladesh, to mention a few, are constantly enveloped by a barrage of thrilled fans -- at the local pub, at the restaurant, at the practice pitch, at the swimming pool -- who have nothing to say but, 'Tomorrow, sir. Win, sir.'
This unceasing pressure, which cannot be eliminated, has to be diluted in one way or the other, and de Villiers' idea of keeping a book to inspire team culture was certainly a deterrent to this indispensable requirement.
Nor is this a one-off incident where South Africa have come undone due to their inability to handle pressure. There is something about the emotion that the country evokes that gets into the heads of its cricketers and beleaguers prospects of a wondrous win. Allan Donald's run-out in the Semi-Finals of the 1999 World Cup is an example. With one to win from four balls, Donald was backing up for a single that was never in the question, and would've been a goner had it not been for a poor throw. Next, Klusener called for a quick single but Donald didn't hear him and South Africa's dream for a World Cup victory lay shattered.
The fear of winning can sometimes be greater than the fear of losing. We see that with Pakistan, whose record against India in World Cup Cricket, as opposed to bilateral series, is hard to believe. When asked about it, Shoaib Akhtar, himself part of numerous derailed campaigns, went on to say that they thought too much of the game, suddenly planned differently, whereas their natural instinct could have guided them home. New Zealand, too, played some breath-taking cricket all the way to the finals in 2015 and then, all of a sudden, seemed a different side. Maybe the fear of the big day had gotten to them too.
Today, as South Africa gear up for another Cricket World Cup, with Dale Steyn past his prime, David Miller and Quinton de Kock grossly out of form, Hashim Amla struggling to find his fitness, and AB de Villiers hanging his boots, its natives have hardly anything to look forward to. Maybe more than the 'chokers' tag, they start off as the underdogs this time. This could ultimately prove to be the much needed impetus for the team, for in professional sport, there is no such burden as the burden of winning.
Pete Samparas, first won the US Open in 1990, at the age of 19. When he lost the title the following year, he said at a press conference, 'It kind of takes the monkey off my back a bit.' The despondency attached to South Africa's fall as a team over the last one year is depressing. But considering the unliftable hammer of pressure they put themselves under, every time they walk out to the tunes of 'Protea Fire', there perhaps could not have been a better thing happening for them.
And if on the 14th of July, 2019, you see a team in green and yellow splashing champagne over each other, and clicking selfies with an idyllic bronze cup, do not be surprised, for cricket, after all, is a very funny game.