The Protea won’t blossom: South Africa and a chronic syndrome

What must it be like to be on the slopes on whose head stands the summit? What must it take to lead an expedition to reach that very summit after competing at every level of the ascent and knocking opponents out consistently? We often admire those efforts that have draped themselves in glory, we bask in them as if they were our own. We weave legends from victories and shower immense love on those victorious few. Their mannerisms and gait, their enthusiasm and their fight are insured against time, for they find place in the most treasured of our feelings. Victory is sweet and nothing can get sweeter than winning a popular sports tournament.

How about a cricket world cup?

While we hum hymns in praise of such teams, there often is another side of the competition — a side that nobody would want to take — that of defeat.

Enormous potential and frustrating failure are incompatible. There is but one team in international cricket that has stacked them both together in every world cup or its lookalikes that it has participated in. Ever since its first world cup in ’92, South Africa has been a classic case of so close yet so far, never failing to inspire hope as these tourneys began but never ever taking the case of all the great ability to its logical conclusion — a tournament victory.  What must it be that prevents South African teams across different generations from being world champions? This remains an enigma and adds to the mysterious beauty of the game.

The South Africans returned to cricket in ‘92 and immediately demonstrated their ability to play aggressively and win consistently. They went on to reach the semis of that world cup where rain and the rules of the competition ensured that their chase was left stranded a little distance from victory. They lost the quarters in ’96 and who can forget the semis of the ’99 world cup where one man’s steely will brought them to a step away from victory and another’s lack of clear thinking sent them crashing out of the competition? What about the arithmetic gaffe that saw them shutting the door on their own face in the world cup of 2003? Do we need to remind ourselves how they lost their way in the world cups that followed?

No South African cricket team is ever weak. Their teams have always been amongst the most potent sides in the lead up to any major tournament. Never have they had to deal with the out of form malaise that the other teams get afflicted with, fairly regularly. But their inexplicable stalling, stuttering and finally, falling in crucial games is reaching the level of a syndrome.

What could be the medicine? But before that, where lies the problem? To have teams that included the likes of Cullinan, Gibbs, Kirsten, Pollock, Kallis, de Villiers and Steyn to name a few, one can safely say that the problem is not with the lack of cricketing skill. In fact, the skills on display by South African teams often set the benchmark in international cricket. Is the problem then in the mind? One must be careful to trot this path as the persons one is evaluating are some of the greatest cricketers in the modern game. Who else could chase down a score greater than 400? Who could run through batting lineups as if it were a farmer wielding a scythe in his harvest- ready field? Who could bat with broken hands in an attempt to save games? Whose bouncers could induce fear?  So how could their minds have any problem?

Is it just the high of these big games that gets the better of these South Africans or is there more to why they falter at the very doorstep of victory every time? Somewhere in the uncharted area on a graph where the curves of performance and potential meet, must lie some truly remarkable facts to help us unravel this mystery. It could be as simple as a one bad game effect, or something more profound bordering on the lines of over confidence or the fear of failure or a phenomenon that deserves a scientific analogy. But whatever it is and however diminutive or gigantic it might be, it makes the might of South African teams look fallible and the way to their weakness fairly straightforward.

While we live in awe as these superstars do the unbelievable, achieve the impossible and ascend to unimaginable heights, the saga of South Africa’s world cup failures gives us a reason to venture into the persona of these players and see how they handle themselves and their fears. What do they do to tame their rising heart beat? How do they back themselves to face the oncoming challenge? If one has the right ear, there is a great conversation going on within each of them. But still, who can tell what went on in Donald’s mind when he froze at the wrong end of the pitch on that cold evening in England in ‘99 or what nervous fingers fed numbers into that wretched calculator that sunk their campaign four years later? Could things have been different if Allan Donald had stayed where he was, and let Lance Klusener have his moment of perpetual glory? You and I would never know.

While the past and its causes leave us smeared in grey and confused, the present and the future have no reasons to do so. Like all lead ups to big tournaments, the South Africans are playing top class cricket, winning the series despite losing a couple of ODIs to New Zealand.

There’s no better time to rip that reputation of being perennial chokers than the Champions Trophy starting a couple of months from now.

Can the Protea blossom past the choking syndrome?

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