By Devarchit Varma
The label of ‘chokers’ continues to haunt South Africa as they failed yet again in the final moments of the home stretch — this time in the ongoing ICC Champions Trophy 2013. Abraham de Villiers, their captain in the shorter formats, had spoken openly about the need to get rid of the appendage when he took up the job — a tag that has shamed a nation of exceptional talent.
Outgoing coach Gary Kirsten admitted being clueless on how to bring an end to this menace. He said, the South Africans will need “real charisma, real guts and glory to get over the line”. But who will do it for them, if not the likes of Hashim Amla, de Villiers, JP Duminy, Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel, or any from the upcoming batch?
Almost a year ago, under Kirsten’s watchful eye and acute planning, South Africa embarked on a rigorous journey, beginning with conquering the Swiss Alps with Allan Donald, Paddy Upton, and explorer Mike Horn in a three-day camp before heading to England and snatching the ICC Test Championship Mace. The idea was to gain mental strength through physical work to start with. South Africa achieved the feat of beating a strong English outfit. Was anything similar done with regard for their one-day assignments?
Perhaps, the early signs of struggle in the 50-over format came in the One-Day International (ODI) followed the Tests in England. South Africa drew the ODI and T20 series and returned home as a happy bunch, having won the most coveted award in world cricket — the No 1 Test team in the world.
South Africans continued to ignore the areas they needed to improve upon in the format, when they lost 1-2 to lowly New Zealand in the ODI series that followed the Tests. Though they surged in Test cricket as the top-ranked nation, they continued to flounder the in one-day format, which damaged their morale ahead of the ICC Champions Trophy 2013.
It is not that South Africa missed Jacques Kallis in the tournament, or were hurt by Steyn and Morne’s absence at crucial stages. The 37-year-old Kallis has served South African cricket for long and South Africa has to reconcile that Kallis won’t be there for long. History is replete with examples of great teams having powerful bench strength. That, obviously, is not the case with South Africa. It’s never easy to fill in the void of giants like Kallis, but it’s a painful process that every team has to accept. The trick lies in how quickly meaningful replacements could be found.
Lessons to learn from India
The Indian team is a good example. It was unthinkable how replacements for the batsmen of the calibre of Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman could be found. But the Indians have not only done well to find meaningful replacements in Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli, but have also many more talented in the bench like Rohit Sharma, Ajinkya Rahane and Manoj Tiwary. Indeed, the team went through unprecedented upheavals following the high of the 2011 World Cup triumph, but today they are just one victory away from winning the Champions Trophy. And there is no Virender Sehwag, no Gautam Gambhir, no Sachin Tendulkar, no Yuvraj Singh, no Harbhajan Singh and a few more who powered the team in the quadrennial showpiece of ODI cricket. The above named have been the titans of India’s glory years, yet the Indian bounce back has been quick. And let it not be forgotten that the team landed in England feeling the heat of the raging fire of the Indian Premier League (IPL) spot-fixing controversy, forcing them to be cocoon themselves from the media onslaught. It has been champions stuff from the Indian team thus far in England, and having a monk-like leader in MS Dhoni has greatly helped the Indian cause.
AB de Villiers’s majestic form in the IPL 2013 looked a thing of distant past, while Duminy’s form faded away quickly after good knocks before the main tournament. Lonwabo Tsotsobe, Rory Kleinveldt and Ryan McLaren aren’t as lethal as Steyn, Morne and Vernon Philander together. The build-up and conditioning for any tournament overseas are critical. South Africa played a practice game each between three Tests against England last year, while before the Champions Trophy 2013, they played one-off ODI against Netherlands, and a warm-up game against Pakistan which they lost.
The ICC World Cup 2015 is almost two years away. India and England have already begun putting plans in action. For South Africa, time is running out fast. They need to find momentum under new coach Russell Domingo, and get back on the track. No team in the world will discount South Africa, but it’s all about coming good when it matters most. And with every loss they suffer at critical junctures of major tournaments, the ‘chocker’ tag gets embedded deeper in their psyche. Yes, it’s a question of mind over matter.