Proteas: Spitting out the chokers tag

Fans show their colours during the opening match between Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe at the Mahinda Rajapaksa stadium in Hambantota.  (Ishara S Kodikara, AFP)

Fans show their colours during the opening match between Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe at the Mahinda Rajapaksa stadium in Hambantota. (Ishara S Kodikara, AFP)

"Choking" is a horrible word, but then so are "fat" and "spotty". Professional sportspeople and young children, despite all the obvious differences, can be equally sensitive when it comes to ­judgments about their physical appearance or ability to look after themselves on the playground.

Children who are neither overweight nor suffering from acne are not bothered by the words, and sportsmen who have no history or perceived problem with performing under pressure are similarly unlikely to have their hackles raised when their ability to cope with pressured situations is questioned.

So South Africa's strategy during the (many) questioning times before the World Twenty20 in Sri Lanka has been to raise their collective hands and say: "Yes, we have had a problem in the past."

What else could they do given the repetitive and almost gleeful manner in which they are questioned about previous campaigns in International Cricket Council tournaments.

Never mind several absurdities they could point to about the personnel in the team now compared with those that represented the country in the 1990s and early 2000s. They are paying for the "sins" of their forefathers, and they are not the first team to have to bear that burden.

Gary Kirsten was a key member of the heavily favoured World Cup team that bombed out in the 1996, 1999 and 2003 World Cups and he is adamant that several aspects of the preparation during those campaigns left something to be desired.

These are mostly that they never discussed pressured situations or – as they say in the corporate world – embraced any "scenario planning".
Like so many aspects of his playing career, Kirsten is committed to making his coaching career different.

Mental fitness
"We have embraced the fact that it's a subject that isn't going away until we start winning. The media love to bring it up and even our supporters are sceptical when it comes to global tournaments," says Paddy Upton, the man primarily responsible for putting in place a regime of "mental fitness".

"The opposition are all going to have chirps at us when games come down to the inevitable tight finish, so we'd be foolish not to address it. The players are all a lot more relieved for doing so and there are no doubts about each other's ability to make the right decisions when the heat is on – literally and metaphorically."

"Choking" implies gasping for air, or being "strangled" by the weight of expectation. Actually, that is just one aspect of the phenomenon. Often, it can reveal itself a long time before the final, fatal moments. The Proteas could be said to have "choked" before a ball was even bowled by Australia in the World Cup semifinal of 2007, when the top order decided to attack Glenn McGrath from the outset rather than "seeing him off" as they would normally have done.

"Decision-making and physical fitness are going to be crucial to success in this heat and humidity during the tournament," says Upton. "Being able to think clearly when your rad­iator is about to blow will be the difference between success and failure. We need to work for each other and back each other. The work we did in Switzerland and then again during the tour of England has been instrumental in creating a strong bond of trust and respect amongst the players, and it's an environment into which the new players have fitted very easily and successfully."

Kirsten remains committed to having as many players as possible feeling as comfortable as possible and fulfilling as many roles as possible as he builds the limited-overs teams towards the 2015 World Cup. He never quite understood the South African policy of having batsmen and bowlers fulfilling "specialist" roles when he was a player, and is adamant that the modern cricketer should not only be able but also willing – even excited – about the chance to do a different job.

Established pair
To that end, Kirsten believes it is to the team's benefit that they have four opening batsmen to choose from, rather than a "problem" that they don't have an "established pair". The same applies to "death bowlers" and the so-called "finishers" in the middle order.

"I understand the advantages of some teams wanting clearly defined roles, but the problem with that is predictability," Kirsten says. "I agree with clearly defined roles. I just believe that a modern professional cricketer should be good enough to be able to do two or three of them. If nothing else, it makes the opposition's technical analysis staff have to work a bit harder."

The usual subcontinental gastric difficulties have been overcome and Upton has been doing his best to ensure the players appreciate the rustic, rugged beauty of the ocean and beaches close to the brand-new Pallekele International Cricket Stadium, constructed against all logistical common sense as a vanity project by the head of Cricket Sri Lanka. Travel times are a challenge and the stadium is as isolated from conventionally accepted international facilities as any in the world. But it's all part of the adventure.

"We mustn't forget that playing cricket is supposed to be fun, a chance to travel and see the world, and make new friends," says Upton. "The more we do that, the more chance we've got of doing well."

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