So, did South Africa choke again?

By Antoinette Muller 20 June 2013

Another ICC tournament, another loss in a knockout round. South Africa weren’t favourites heading into the game, but that doesn’t relieve them from a tag that has haunted them for so very long. Was it a choke this time? BY ANTOINETTE MULLER.

“Until we win a trophy we’ll be chokers.” Those were the words of AB de Villiers the day before South Africa were sent into another semi-final where they were underdogs. If you were a betting man, you wouldn’t have put money on the Proteas progressing, not with a depleted line-up and having lost the toss. In black-and-white terms, South Africa didn’t choke, but sport isn’t quite black and white – it’s far more complex than that.

The definition of choking varies. For many, it’s simply a case of losing when the pressure is on. That’s a fair assessment of the term. That choking means to choke on the pressure and not absorb and transfer it. But perhaps, that’s a pretty basic assessment of it. To choke under pressure there are certain elements that need to be present. The reckless shot, the unnecessary run out, the collapse and the general inability to apply oneself. All of those were present when the Proteas crashed out of the Champions Trophy against England on Wednesday.

Others believe that to choke, one has to be in a strong position. South Africa headed into the match as underdogs and with Dale Steyn being ruled out through injury early on, they were the least favourites in the match. On that basis, many would say that South Africa didn’t choke, but the assessment of the C-word isn’t quite as simple as that, despite what Tweets from pundit and player alike might have suggested.

When it comes to South Africa and choking, analysis paralysis is something that quite often arises. This is a state of over-thinking a situation to such an extent that no action is ever taken, which in effect paralyses the outcome. Decisions feel over complicated and the options are too many and too detailed, in a quest for the immediate and perfect solution, which leads to a fear of actually deciding anything.

If South Africa had decided something, they didn’t execute their plans very well. And they would have had plans. On a misty and humid morning in London, they would have known that surviving the two new balls which would swing – orthodoxly, none of the mysterious reverse swing stuff – would be crucial. They would have known that The Oval is a flat track – it’s here where they batted and batted and batted last year. It’s here where county teams are struggling for wickets this year. It’s here where Sri Lanka chased down almost 300 to beat England just a week ago. On paper, it was an easy task and although England were quite good with the ball and Jos Buttler was quite good with the gloves, they were hardly remarkable. Yet South Africa managed to make them look like an all-star team taking on a school’s second team.

The Proteas were at sea with any sort of cognitive reaction. It was an emotional reaction to a raw and emotional situation. The scars of knockout matches past run deep, but when the wounds don’t heal – we scratch them more. Despite South Africa’s best attempt to put the word out there and making “friends” with it, in a what you know can’t hurt you attempt, they still came out second best.

Sports psychologists will tell you that choking can also be described as a “significant decline in performance under pressure”. And that’s the kicker. Until Wednesday, South Africa’s batting wasn’t their biggest problem.

They scored over 300 in their first game, with Robin Peterson, AB de Villiers and Ryan McLaren all contributing significantly. Despite a few minor blips against Pakistan, they scored 234. With Hashim Amla the main contributor this time, with everyone around him chipping in with double figures. Against the West Indies, in just 31 overs, they managed 230. Again, everyone chipped in. Batting was never a problem for South Africa – until they headed into a semi-final and the batting was at sea.

One cannot argue that they were not under pressure. Of course they were, they had a lot to prove, England were favourites and the stronger side, nobody expected South Africa to win, but nobody expected them to combust and self-implode so spectacularly either.

Journalists at the post-match press conference padded around the word. Nobody wanted to say it, until the very last question. The prompter believed that it wasn’t a choke and wanted to know how Gary Kirsten explains that to people back home, but the coach was prompt in his answer.

“I think we choked”.

And that’s all she wrote.

On Wednesday, South Africa played poorly, irresponsibly and not well enough to choke. It wasn’t so much a choke as much as it was forgetting to breathe and passing out before even getting to a position to choke. DM

Photo: South Africa’s Lonwabo Tsotsobe (R) is caught from the bowling of England’s Stuart Broad during the ICC Champions Trophy semi-final match at The Oval cricket ground in London June 19, 2013. REUTERS/Philip Brown


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