Sport

They saw it coming

Neil Manthorp

The Protea's didn't choke, they just changed their game plan, writes Neil Manthorp.

The hand-wringing, lip-biting angst of yet another ICC failure will no doubt continue for a few weeks yet—and the pain and embarrassment will be at their height while the semifinals and final of the Champions Trophy are still taking place on South African soil.

“Choking” in International sport is commonplace, especially when a desperately sought-after goal comes sharply into focus, but that wasn’t the problem this time. Nobody choked and nobody was strangled by the occasion.

The problem, for good or bad, was more one of technical preparation than mental frailty or psychology. The Proteas stumbled, almost by accident, on a winning formula in the home series against Australia six months ago and stuck to it with a faith that was as blind as it was commendable.

“Never change a winning team” is a sports theme that has existed for centuries but has become more and more outdated with every year in which video and other technological research options on the opposition increase and improve.

South Africa bowled poorly against England in Centurion on Sunday, there can be no doubt, but the most dramatic realisation for the home side was that the opposition knew exactly what to expect and had coordinated their game plan to suit the formulaic approach that was once the prerogative of the Hansie Cronje era.

The Cronje era was famous for an unprecedented win record of almost 80%, but his reliance on a set formula led to his team expecting the result to be the same every time and when things went wrong, especially in big games, they froze. Lack of options and scant scenario planning created the chokers tag. And not entirely unfairly.

Graeme Smith and Mickey Arthur exist in a different era—today the game moves forward at a faster pace than ever. Although they have enjoyed the longest—and well deserved—rest of their careers and worked on physical conditioning, the rest of the world studied their route to the number one ranking and devised strategies to counter it.

The formula that dismantled Australia in March was studied, at leisure, by everyone. Steyn and Parnell with the new ball. Kallis and Morkel to share the third seamer’s role, Botha and Van der Merwe to bowl in tandem in the middle overs and Steyn and Parnell to finish at the “death” of the innings. With a bit of Duminy off-spin if required. It was brilliant and worked largely because two members of the attack were unknown and another had a viperous sting in his armour called the “doosra”.

But Parnell and Van der Merwe have now been scrutinised and Johan Botha has been banned from bowling the delivery that spins away from the righthander because his arm is said to extend beyond the permitted 15 degrees.

The bowling was poor, but a large part of South Africa’s problem was their predictability. England’s pre-game team meeting focused on four things: don’t get out to Steyn, wait for the bad ball from Parnell, attack the third seamer (Morkel) and don’t allow the spinners to settle into a rhythm. England believed strongly that Morkel’s confidence was brittle, and that Botha and (especially) Van der Merwe, were spikey individuals who would respond poorly to early pressure. And they were right.

But as much as the competitive spirit of the spinners will see them through, Morkel’s role as third seamer—even when shared with Kallis—may be doomed. As gloriously as his Kluseneresque hitting entertains the crowds, and even wins matches, as it did in Australia at the beginning of the year, Mike Procter and his fellow selectors will now have to address the value of Morkel’s batting against the liability of his bowling.

And what of JP Duminy’s calm, controlled demeanour at the crease when six or seven runs an over are required? It is one thing to display confidence and retain the moral high ground but quite another to get the job done. Duminy looks elegant under pressure, even serene, but sometimes you need to get your hands dirty and scrap for every run. There are times when playing the ball on its merits doesn’t work.

Sri Lanka probably have the most talented and well-balanced squad in the tournament, but they, too, have been eliminated, whereas India’s millionaires played like paupers. New Zealand, meanwhile, lost three key players to injury during their three group games but cruised into the semifinals. That’s the beauty of sport. It is not predictable and was never meant to be.

All you can do is practise more and try harder—and make sure you’ve got the best people in your team. At least nobody can have any doubt that Graeme Smith and Mickey Arthur will be doing all three of those things in the coming weeks.

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