x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Cricket: South Africa's unwanted stranglehold on choking

After losing their Champions Trophy opener against India on Thursday, Richard Ferraris looks at Luke Alfred's book on the reasons for the Proteas' history of failure at major tournaments.

From left, Lance Klusener, Allan Donald and Hansie Cronje of South Africa discuss tactics during the 1999 Cricket World Cup.
From left, Lance Klusener, Allan Donald and Hansie Cronje of South Africa discuss tactics during the 1999 Cricket World Cup.

Herschelle Gibbs's batting for South Africa would often flit between the careless and the carefree. Given his blase attitude at the crease, it comes as some surprise that, after being dismissed for 30 in the 1999 World Cup semi-final against Australia at Edgbaston, he refused to watch South Africa's dramatic run chase.

"I just can't handle these big games," Gibbs told Luke Alfred, a former sports journalist.

Alfred's book, The Art of Losing: Why the Proteas Choke at the Cricket World Cup, is what he calls "a book of ghosts" that evaluates the sporting, social and historical reasons for the culture of failure that has come to define the South African cricket team's performances in major tournaments.

Alfred's book will resonate with South Africans as the Proteas prepare for a Champions Trophy group match against Pakistan at Edgbaston on Monday after their opening-match defeat against India on Thursday. Although his chronological account of South Africa's failures is informative and readable, for the more discerning fan, some of Alfred's arguments may seem incomplete.

He leans heavily on Malcolm Gladwell's essay about collapsing under pressure, or "choking".

In 2000 Gladwell wrote: "Choking is about thinking too much. Panic is about thinking too little. Choking is about loss of instinct. Panic is reversion to instinct."

If we accept Gladwell's definition, the Proteas panic rather than choke, says Alfred, though the experts tread more carefully. The body of scholarly work on choking has advanced in the past 13 years. Dr Candice Christie, the head of Rhodes University's Human Ergonomics department, believes Gladwell's take is deficient. Choking "is a lot more complex than this over-simplistic message", she says.

Alfred thinks it better to eschew the science of choking to focus on other explanations and first-hand accounts from those involved with the Proteas. Along with Gibbs, he interviewed dozens of players, officials and coaches whose insights prove to be the backbone of the book. His most compelling chapters feature Lance Klusener and that semi-final against Australia almost exactly 14 years ago.

The South African XI that tied with Australia - but were knocked out - are often described as the best team never to win the World Cup. That title belies their reliance on Klusener's lower-order bludgeoning: he scored 250 runs at the tournament and won four man-of-the-match awards.

The team's "dependence on individual heroism of the Klusener variety" stems from the environment in which South African cricketers develop, in a conformist schools system, writes Alfred, who draws a link between this system and the national team. As Klusener showed in 1999, individuals can revel in conformist structures but, crucially, they find success in spite of the system.

Klusener told Alfred how he developed a mechanism to cope with the ebb and flow of international cricket during a difficult tour of India in 1998.

"You've got to stay on your lily," was his mantra.

Alfred suggests Klusener's "bubble" was partly responsible for the Edgbaston fiasco in 1999. South Africa, with one wicket in hand, required nine runs off the final over to win.

Klusener struck boundaries off the first two deliveries, leaving four balls for the Proteas to score one run. With Australia adjusting their field, Klusener and his batting partner Allan Donald stayed at their respective ends when they should have held a discussion, writes Alfred.

Klusener was on his lily and "locked into the idea of winning the match", rendering Donald all but invisible. Without communicating, the pressure created confusion that led to a dramatic run-out - and elimination.

Four years later, South Africa were again eliminated after tying with Sri Lanka in a match interrupted by rain. Mark Boucher, having thought that the Proteas were ahead on Duckworth-Lewis, blocked out the final delivery. Again, a lack of communication cost the side.

The 2007 World Cup semi-final, also against Australia, was an example of South Africa's commitment to conformity, highlighting their inability to change their game plan, which left them reeling at 27 for five after the top-order batsmen's aggressive approach to the swinging ball backfired. The coach at the time, Mickey Arthur, called it "calculated planning" but Alfred describes it as the team "buckling themselves into a tactical straitjacket". It resulted in an ignominious seven-wicket defeat.

When asked how a team recovers from trauma, Bridget Schuil, a sports scientist, highlights the importance of cognitive resilience. "Markers of high cognitive resilience include the ability to talk themselves through a big failure and come out the other side with a strategy for improvement," she says. "There is a very important distinction between 'having failed' and 'being a failure' in terms of the ability to rebound psychologically."

Alfred's interview with Clinton Gawhiler, the Proteas' psychologist in 2003, underscores how the team was ill-equipped to deal with pressure. But the psychological impact of the match-fixing saga that came to a head in 2000 is passed over in just three pages, even though the former Proteas cricketer Derek Crookes suggests to Alfred that the 1999 World Cup defeat to Zimbabwe was dubious.

The suggestion is, for now, unsubstantiated.

Alfred does unravel some of the sociopolitical issues that may affect performance. He asks: "How can a game as starkly existential as cricket not fail to mirror the anguish and unfinished business of a newly democratic society?"

But the extent to which the Proteas reflect South Africa's loss of innocence is overlooked. Wright Thompson, in his beautiful essay, Why You Should Care About Cricket, writes that India in the early 1990s was a "pre-ironic society". Heroes are expected to behave a certain way, writes Thompson, whose thoughts about India are equally applicable to South Africa.

Much like India, albeit for different reasons, South Africa was opening up to the world in the 1990s and sport was a conduit for an expression of newfound confidence. The narrative of triumph was set by Nelson Mandela, the Springboks uniting the nation when they won the 1995 Rugby World Cup and the football team becoming champions of Africa in 1996.

It was the Cricket World Cup that ushered in an age of doubt. No South African fan will forget the absurdity of a crestfallen Brian McMillan needing to hit 22 runs off one ball in 1992; the selection of Paul "Frog in a Blender" Adams in 1996; the insanity of Donald dropping his bat in 1999 and, at the most extreme level, the denouement of the match-fixing scandal that resulted in Hansie Cronje's fall from grace a year later.

Alfred's book brings a great deal of clarity to an often intense debate but, as with the incomplete discussion about the science of choking, his overall analysis leaves the deeper questions unanswered.

The answers, South African fans hope, might eventually be found on the cricket pitch.


* The Art of Losingis available at amazon.com