/ 7 December 2012

Proteas World Cup woes: It’s not choking, it’s panic

Allan Donald at the 1999 World Cup
Allan Donald at the 1999 World Cup

by Luke Alfred
(Zebra Press)

Asked whether South Africa's failure in the T-20 World Cup in 2010 had been the result of choking, former South African fast bowler Craig Matthews testily slapped down the interviewer: "No, we didn't play well enough to choke."

Matthews was right to bridle: the term "choking" ought to be banned from all discussion of South African underachievement in the shorter forms of international cricket.

A taunt popularised by the Aussies as a form of off-field sledging, it is now chorused by the most sheep-like elements in local journalism as a simplistic substitute for real thought.

That said, Luke Alfred, a former Sunday Times sports editor and now a Cricket South Africa official, is not one of them. Despite its subtitle, his thoughtful and nuanced book about South Africa's serial failures in the Cricket World Cup does not set out to show that the national side are "chokers".

In fact, using a distinction drawn from Canadian writer Malcolm Gladwell, he argues that the problem has been more one of panic –unthinking raw emotion, a reversion to instinct – than the heightened self-consciousness and loss of spontaneity that choking implies. But more importantly, The Art of Losing makes no attempt to contrive a single explanation for South Africa's failure to reach the final in the past seven World Cups: each tournament is shown as having its own dynamic.

Panic is a plausible way of understanding what went wrong in England in 1999 when South Africa had perhaps its best side and most realistic chance of winning.

Alfred suggests that the semifinal run-out mix-up between Allan Donald and Lance Klusener happened because the two men – Donald paralysed by nerves and Klusener distracted by his heroic sense of mission – had lost sight of each other.

Stiff upper lip
They were "so caught up in their respective bubbles … that not even at this stage in the innings – the South Africans had three deliveries left for the winning run, remember – did they think to have a mid-pitch parley".

The culture of the stiff upper lip in South African sport, where players do not share their thoughts, let alone feelings, is a central theme of The Art of Losing. "The problem is that talent often goes hand in hand with emotional immaturity," Alfred writes, "the immaturity of a facile, macho culture that abhors any expression of uncertainty or fear."

Boeta Dippenaar, one of several insightful analysts from left field who Alfred interviews, makes the same point about the climate in the South African dressing room before the encounter with Sri Lanka in Durban in 2003, the scene of the infamous Duckworth-Lewis misstep.

"A lot of players had that fear but we were too scared to talk about it … I think the difference between champions and world champions and perhaps us is how you deal with feelings and, ultimately, how you deal with the pressure."

Alfred also argues that – in part because most South African internationals are mainly products of the country's elite school system – there is a top-down culture in South African sport that works against independent thought and the taking of individual responsibility.

Distinguishing features
He quotes University of Cape Town sports psychologist Clinton Gahwiler, who accompanied the side throughout the 2003 tournament, as suggesting that South African cricketers of the past may have been a different breed, "guys who were strong, grounded individuals who could think for themselves".

This chimes with how Allan Donald sees his job as the national bowling coach, not primarily as a technical adviser, but as a provider of strategic and pyschological counsel who encourages players to take the initiative and own their performances.

One could certainly argue that this individual resourcefulness has historically been one of the distinguishing features of Australia's sporting ethos and a key reason why its cricketers (the current side apparently excepted) seem less likely to lose their way in the face of crisis and adversity.

The Art of Losing is a provocative, absorbing and sometimes atmospheric read. But the obvious question it raises is how, if South Africa's sporting culture is so profoundly flawed, the national side has managed to rise to the top in the far more challenging five-day variant of the game.

It suggests that Alfred perhaps understates the role of chance and random misadventure in cricket –and particularly its shorter forms.

The greater unpredictability of the one-day international and T-20 formats – the fact that, once in a while, Kenya defeats the West Indies and Ireland beats Pakistan – is a factor in their facile excitement and mass appeal. But it also makes them an unreliable test of the real balance of cricketing power.