Proteas out to conquer choking demon at World Cup

South Africa’s cricketers are back in the country where they were first labelled chokers. They unwittingly went on to own that tag, but plan to rid themselves of the C-word once and for all in England.

It has been 20 years since the Proteas were given – and earned – their tag as chokers in international cricket.

Former Australian captain Steve Waugh got the ball rolling by slyly getting into the Proteas’ heads ahead of the now infamous 1999 Cricket World Cup semifinal: “I never said South Africa were chokers. I said they couldn’t play well under pressure. But if remarks like that upset them, then they have problems.”

Lance Klusener and Allan Donald then went and removed all doubt about whether or not the Proteas deserved the dubious label by failing to carry off the most lamented incomplete single in the history of South African cricket, during the semifinal in Edgbaston. Given that cricket fans still wake up at 3am asking why Donald didn’t just run, the slow-motion train wreck that was that attempted single probably bears glossing over.

Klusener had done the improbable bit by taking eight of the nine runs needed to win – and the Proteas had to win – off the final over from the first two balls. Weirdly, the panic only set in with one run needed from four balls, which is how he ended up forcing the single that never was on the fourth delivery of that over, inducing Donald to create a nation’s recurring nightmare.

It’s tough not to feel for Donald, who wrote in his book, White Lightning: “I’ve never been so nervous in my life. I looked up at Lance, saw him rushing to my end, and so I started to run as well. My legs felt like jelly, as if I wasn’t making any headway at all down the other end. I tried to get my legs moving properly. It was a dreamlike sequence, almost in slow motion.”

And to think that the Proteas’ motto for that World Cup campaign was: “One run can make a difference.”

Trying to lose the chokers tag

Since then, Cricket World Cups have been nothing short of a cruel joke visited upon the country and its hapless players every four years. Two decades later, the Proteas have made little headway in convincing anyone that they are no longer chokers, despite much tilting at windmills.

They’ve ignored discussing the C-word altogether, because of its negative connotations; attempted to deal with it head-on; recruited all manner of sport psychologists, including the 2007 World Cup-winning Springboks’ self-styled kop dokter (head doctor), Henning Gericke; and read James Kerr’s book Legacy, which details how the All Blacks went from being a team that lost the close, high-stakes matches to winning practically all of them.

One can never be sure, but just about the only thing the Proteas haven’t tried in their quest to overcome the mental frailty that has relegated them to the best cricketing team never to win a World Cup is consulting a sangoma, as football teams are rumoured to do.

They have also tinkered with their team culture by smartly embracing the Protea emblem and its “Protea Fire” tagline, a reference to the flower not only being resilient under trying conditions but also regenerating first after a fire.

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England may be lush at this time of year, but for Proteas coach Ottis Gibson’s team, few places represent scorched earth as much as the country where the choking monkey first climbed on to their backs. So, how will they deal with it this time?

Judging by their comments before they left for the World Cup, the team has gone for a self-sufficient and pragmatic approach. Having banned the C-word in his team and media conferences – he promised not to entertain questions related to it – Gibson revealed that his team hiked up Table Mountain in preparation to scale an Everest they have never conquered during their one-week camp.

“The reason we went up Table Mountain is because it’s familiar to us,” began Gibson. “At the end of the day, whether we walk up the mountain or go to the World Cup, for us it’s still cricket, and that’s what I’ve been preaching for two years since I got here. We are going there to play cricket.

“It’s packaged as a World Cup, but we’re going to play cricket and we’re going to play there as South Africa. We played Sri Lanka a couple of months ago, we played Pakistan a few months ago, we went to Australia and beat them there and we went to Sri Lanka and beat them there. Now we’re going to play all those teams in England and it’s called a World Cup, but it is still cricket. If we lose sight of the fact that we’re playing cricket, we’re going to stumble.”

‘We don’t need to be Superman’

Perhaps mindful of the fact that the Proteas were on the field for the two games considered to be the best at the World Cup and in one-day international (ODI) history – the tied semifinal at Edgbaston and the 438-run match respectively – without winning the World Cup, team captain Faf du Plessis sought to hammer home the practical approach.

“As our coach said, our focus over the last year has been, whatever we’ve done over the last season is good enough because we are beating teams consistently,” he explained. “So we don’t need to feel like we need to be Superman on the day and score 190 off 70 balls or take 7/20, because life doesn’t work like that.”

Du Plessis, who is approaching his third World Cup as a player but his first as captain, said the self-help departure had been a while in the making: “I started this journey about a year ago, starting to prepare the team mentally more than anything else.

“I see it as an area in which we can get better, and it’s not something I sweep under the carpet and say it’s not going to happen because I know, I’ve been there. That’s what we’ve spoken about, being present in the moment and not thinking about the media, not thinking about the future and not thinking about people talking about choking.”

The mentality of owning the moment has been drip-fed into the team’s style of play: “There’s method to the madness. There was a reason we told batters to go and play freely and get away from the fear of failure. What is the World Cup? It’s a fear of failure, a fear of letting your team and country down.

Success in this tournament will depend on how well we can release that side of our mental aspect.”

Igniting the Protea Fire

According to Gericke, the Proteas have been working on their culture since Graeme Smith was captain. Gericke remembers how the Protea Fire tagline was created: “Colin Ingram’s father is a farmer in the Eastern Cape and one of the things he farms are proteas. Colin brought each of the players a protea and they all [symbolically] threw it into a fire.”

This explains why the culture within the team is considered so good that Gibson speaks of there being no egos in the side.

But Gericke – who was the resident shrink at the 2011 World Cup, where the Proteas were undone by a New Zealand team that believed getting into the South Africans’ heads would facilitate beating them in an ill-tempered quarterfinal – wonders if that well-documented selflessness has not been part of the problem in the past.

“The dynamics of that team have always been good,” he says. “But there’s a  saying [by writer Rudyard Kipling] that goes the strength of the wolf is the pack, and the strength of the pack is the wolf. While the first part of that quote is great within the team, the latter part of it is where the challenge is.

“The Proteas are such good team guys that someone is not doing well they can worry about that. But there will be times during the tournament when individual players will need to stand up, where they are a bit selfish and are about themselves and say, ‘Bring that pressure on, I’m the guy to get us out of this.’

“In a tournament, you need 11 guys who can handle pressure, guys who will say, ‘If you need to score six runs an over, I’ll do it.’ The question is, are the individual guys mentally strong enough to stand up when there’s pressure? The guys need to know themselves under pressure if they’re going to do anything about it.”

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Gericke’s examples were India’s Mahendra Singh Dhoni demanding to be promoted up the order in the 2011 final, despite not having had a great tournament with the bat – and scoring the winning runs. More recently, it was Sri Lankan cricketer Lasith Malinga conceding 22 runs in his penultimate over in this year’s Indian Premier League (IPL) final, but coming back to win it for the Mumbai Indians by taking a wicket with the final ball of the over.

“Cricket is an individual sport. It’s not like rugby, where the only individual parts are throwing into the lineout and kicking. The individuals need to be stronger and individuals need to make the pack stronger.

“The Indian players are very individualistic and we are team guys, which I’m not sure is always good for cricket. The team is everything in rugby, but in cricket that needs to be a 50-50 split.”

Du Plessis the best leader in Proteas’ mental battle

Cape Town-based performance coach Tom Dawson-Squibb, who has worked with the Melbourne Rebels this Super Rugby season and was recently called in to help the Royal Challengers Bangalore when they went winless in their first six IPL games, said it is important to recognise the pressure moments when they arrive and devise a simple strategy to deal with that.

“The guys need to ask themselves what will they see when they come under pressure,” he explained. “Will we see guys talking less? Will we see guys connecting less? Will we see guys play shots they don’t usually play? The way to deal with that is what I call using dominoes to push [to turn the momentum around]. What’s important is knowing what the first domino you can push under pressure is, i.e. the most simple thing you can control.

“In a rugby team, that could be intensity in contact, which you can train for, communicate it and select players who can do it, etc. So you actually narrow the focus of what you’re going to do to allow you to fully be in the moment.”

Both Gericke and Dawson-Squibb are convinced that Du Plessis, owing to his “connectedness with the players and the psychological safety he gives them”, is the best man to lead the Proteas to victory.

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Looking at the rest of the squad, it is essentially made up of players who have experience in not winning the World Cup (think Hashim Amla, Dale Steyn, JP Duminy and David Miller); young tyros who come to the tournament with swagger (Quinton de Kock, Kagiso Rabada, Aiden Markram, Andile Phehlukwayo and Lungi Ngidi); and self-made men like Rassie van der Dussen and Dwaine Pretorius, who know themselves not only as cricketers but also as men.

Du Plessis said that having Amla in the team would be beneficial to Markram, if the former is not scoring runs, while Ngidi spoke for the youngsters when he said, “The thing is I wasn’t there, there’s not much I can do about it. All I can do is hear about it, watch video clips and think, ‘Maybe I wouldn’t have ball-watched if I was batting.’ But I don’t know.”

Maybe Van der Dussen, in explaining why he has taken to ODI cricket like a duck to water, was speaking for how everybody should go about their business when he said, “Pressure for me is something that’s created internally. Yes, the game pressure will be you need 10 runs off two balls, but you can, to a very large extent, control the pressure in your mind.

“Often, if you can take that second longer to think and get that outside perspective, you realise you’re not under as much pressure. Once you do that, you don’t expend mental energy fighting against what you perceive to be a pressure situation and lend your mental energy to the task. And the task as a batter is to face the next ball, that is what I try and do.”

Gibson hasn’t officially put a motto on the Proteas’ World Cup campaign, but it could well be: It’s still cricket.

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