South Africa at the World Cup: Yoked to ‘choke’

This year, skipper Faf du Plessis has encouraged his squad not to be affected by the inevitable hype and that “doing our best” should be its only expectation.

Be strong and be one, whatever happens. That’s the message to the World Cup-bound South African team.   -  Getty Images

Captain Faf du Plessis has a personal reason to oversee a different approach to this World Cup — or at least, as ‘different’ as the build-up can be in a country with an unhealthy obsession with the tournament which far outweighs that of any other nation.

A young du Plessis came to the crease at a crucial stage (121-4) of the quarter-final against New Zealand in Dhaka, 2011, and promptly ran out AB de Villiers. The Black Caps surrounded him, jostling and jeering and making certain he knew what he’d just done. Chasing just 222 for victory, South Africa was out — again. And was still without a single knockout victory at any World Cup.

Graeme Smith retired from ODI cricket with immediate effect and did not travel home with the rest of the team. “Sometimes it feels like our most loyal supporters want to put someone against a wall and shoot them when we lose, especially in a World Cup,” Smith said recently.

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Four years later, South Africa did finally win a knockout game — against Sri Lanka in the quarter-final at the SCG — but the heartbreak was so intense after the dramatic defeat to the Black Caps at Auckland Park that captain de Villiers looked like he’d be happy to shoot himself.

Again, du Plessis had been at the centre of it with a fine 82 in South Africa’s total of 281-5, but it was the pain of his best friend, de Villiers, and last over ‘villain’ Dale Steyn which lingered longest afterwards.

This year, du Plessis has encouraged his squad not to be affected by the inevitable hype and to be satisfied that “doing our best” should be its only expectation. Be strong and be one, whatever happens. Du Plessis is full of respect for the other teams, acknowledges that England and India are the favourites and recognises that New Zealand and the new-look West Indies will be strongly fancied.

Du Plessis (centre) reacts with teammates Farhaan Behardien (left) and David Miller after South Africa’s loss in the semi-finals of the 2015 World Cup to New Zealand. South Africa had won its first knockout match in a World Cup earlier, when it beat Sri Lanka in the quarter-finals.   -  AFP

 

There have been several undisputed ‘chokes’ at ICC events, but the label has also been incorrectly applied to matches in which the Proteas have simply been outplayed. Du Plessis was part of two teams which did choke. South Africa lost 8-80 in crashing to 175 all out in the 2013 Champions Trophy semi-final in 2013 and was thrashed by England with 12 overs to spare at the Oval.

Four years later, needing to beat India to reach the semis, South Africa was 140-2 before losing 8-51. India won by eight wickets, again with 12 overs to spare. Du Plessis was responsible for running out both de Villiers and David Miller, the second resulting in the humiliating sight of both of them sprinting for the same crease to save themselves.

If he has learnt anything from those experiences, it is that South African cricketers do not have a problem performing under pressure per se — their winning record confirms that. But when they allow the World Cup ‘noise’ into their heads, things can change. Do change.

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Herschelle Gibbs’ ‘dropped’ catch in the ’99 Super Six? The foibles of a maverick showman. Lance Klusener’s ‘choke’ in the semi-final? How choked was he when he smashed the first two deliveries to the boundary with nine required in the company of last man Allan Donald?

The emotionally crushing exit on home soil in 2003 was the result of a failure to correctly read the recently introduced Duckworth/Lewis sheet after Mark Boucher had hit Muttiah Muralitharan for six to reach what the dressing room believed was the winning score, not the par score. An ‘off-field choke’, if you must.

There is some truth in the reputation, but it has also become an irresistibly tempting storyline for headline writers. If and when South Africa loses during this World Cup, the label will be applied, in whatever circumstances. Du Plessis knows it and he’s made quite sure everybody else does, too.