On choking and the South African cricket team.

Vikram Sathaye, a terrific cricket humorist and author of the book “How Sachin destroyed my life” is an excellent mimic. In one of his mimicry of Mohammed Azharuddin interviewed by Geoff Boycott, he asks “So Azhar, whats the Plan?” and he replies in Azhar’s typical style “Not much, bat well, bowl well, field well”.

It would be wishful thinking if playing international cricket and winning matches is so easy. Rather, often despite best efforts one is not able to bat, bowl and field well and ends up squandering a winning position to what is said “snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.” This situation is often termed as Choking.

Generally speaking, choking in sports is when a team is in a winning position in a match but then proceeds to lose it. A less common variant could be if a team is in a neutral position but then instead of extending and proving its domination to go to a winning position loses its way to be in  an inferior position to what it was expected to be.

The cricket team which is most associated with choking is South Africa (SA) The first time the term choking became popularly associated with the South African team was in the 1999 World Cup Semi Finals at Birmingham against SA. Shaun Pollock’s 5-36 was largely instrumental in restricting Australia to 213. However Shane Warne took 4 wickets and the final over saw SA needing 9 runs with one wicket in hand. Lance klusener smashed 2 boundaries in the 1st 2 balls off Damien Fleming and SA suddenly needed only 1 run with 4 balls left. White Lightning Allan Donald survived a run out but again in the very next ball was once again run out, resulting in a tie. Australia proceeded to the Final as they had finished higher in the Super 6 Stages.

Prior to this match too , many years earlier, SA had shown signs of choking. Once was as early as 1993 in the Hero Cup Semi Final against India in front of a huge Eden Gardens crowd. The target was only 195 but the South Africans messed it up. Finally in the last over, with 2 wickets left SA needed 6 for a win with the big allrounder Brian Macmillan at the crease, but at the non-strikers end. Fanie de Villiers took a single and should have stayed put to give Brian the strike but he went for a second run and ran himself out. Allan Donald could not take a single run in the next 3 balls and only managed a single in the 5th. Macmillan needed a 4 in the last ball but could only take a single , leaving India with a 3 run win.

I will give 2 more examples of SA choking when in sight of a win. In the 1st Test match of the 2013-14 series at the New Wanderers Stadium, Johannessburg, India had set a huge target of 466. Centuries by AB De Villiers and Faf Du Plessis took SA close to what seemed a certain win. At one stage they were 402 for 4 with 48 required in 13 overs with both ABD and Faf at the crease. Inexplicably they lost 3 more wickets and could not close it out, finishing at 450/7. Later in a bizarre press conference South African skipper Smith said that the Indian team did not show enough desire for a win and the Indian team spokesman Virat Kohli (who missed a golden chance for tons in both innings of the same Test) also said that he was shocked that the SA team did not try for a win.

The final example is of yet another World Cup, this one in home conditions where one can say South Africa choked in the dressing room. It was conveyed to Mark Boucher that as per D/L method 6 was required for a win and he hit a massive 6 and raised his arms in celebration and blocked the next ball to walk off when the rains poured down. Sadly, 7 was required and the wrong communication meant that once again SA , in consecutive World Cups had messed it up to convert a sure win to a tie.

With these examples let us analyse what exactly is choking. As said earlier, a team cannot close out a win.

Why ?

Firstly. one thinks too much. One gets anxious. Accordingly the bowling suddenly appears more penetrative and batting appears more difficult. There is pressure, there is nerves and choking may happen. The solution- Dont think much. When Australia scored 434, Kallis told his teammates, Hey this is 1 450 pitch , they are 15 short. A hungover Herschelle Gibbs smashed his way to 175 to help South Africa to an epic win.

Next is lack of communication. If one sees the video of Klusener blasting Damien Fleming for 2 boundaries in that famous 1999 match at Edgbaston, one can see that both Klusener and Donald are in their respective creases. Hence there were 2 consecutive run out chances and one fructified, to the horror of the batting side. Proper communication would have helped, and also calmed down nerves. So also when Boucher lost the plot and defended  a delivery after assuming they had won after hitting a 6, it was an example of improper communication.

Overexpectations is linked to thinking too much. One has huge expectations especially when one is a highly ranked team with lots of match-winners. Translating that into actual winning becomes difficult.

Finally, past history plays a role. Every South African team will be having the burden of previous ‘chokes’ or ‘meltdowns’ and it will be weighing their mind, whether they are batting or bowling or even fielding. Such burden is not conducive  to putting in match winning performances.

Currently, the Number 1 ODI team in the world , South Africa has crashed out of yet another ICC Tournament, the ongoing Champions Trophy. They will be looking forward to regroup, plan and make a charge at winning the 2019 world cup.

Sadly, till they dont win a major tournament, the “chokers” tag will remain with them.





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