By Karthik Parimal
They appear to be an invincible side before the commencement of any major tournament but somehow manage to self-destruct by crumbling under pressure towards the end of it. This has been South Africa's story for almost two decades now. Several captains and coaches have passed the baton along and yet there isn't an effective solution that has exterminated the 'chokers' tag hanging around their neck like a millstone in crucial ICC events.
After a highly-successful stint with Team India, the onus now is on Gary Kirsten to revive faith and ability in a confident yet insecure South African cricket team. There were many hindrances when Kirsten took over as India's coach, but he successfully managed to circumvent all impeding issues and maneuvered Team India to reach high altitudes in international cricket. With family alongside, familiar conditions and a much-reduced media glare, coaching South Africa will be less strenuous for Kirsten, which will probably allow him to execute his plans with a much clearer mindset.
To be honest, the 'chokers' tag has been playing on the minds of the South African players. AB de Villiers, the newly-appointed captain has confessed that the tag was one of the reasons for South Africa's exit from the recently concluded World Cup. Soon after being accredited with captaincy, de Villiers has made his intentions very clear. "We obviously have the history of not performing well at the big events and that is definitely something we want to change and will work on," he said. The Proteas, so far, have preferred not to talk much about their botched campaigns at mega events but the fact that the newly appointed head honchos are willing to acknowledge the problem and look for solutions is heart-warming.
The litmus test for South Africa will be in October when they face a determined Australia who will no doubt be hungry for success and out to silence their increasing critics. By then, the South African players and the newly-appointed staff will have to bond well and develop into a strong unit. This process may eventually be a little easy considering the fact that the support staff consists of Russell Domingo, who has worked with many of the current players at the first-class level. Also, the inclusion of Allan Donald as a bowling coach will be an added bonus to the team. Having a coach and support staff of the same country certainly reduces the time spent in familiarizing.
Kirsten's calm and composed attitude will be an asset to a team famous for wilting under pressure. Also, appointing Hashim Amla as the vice-captain will help take that extra load off Jacques Kallis, thereby enabling him to perform better as a player. A major challenge for Kirsten, de Villiers and the Test captain Graeme Smith will be to groom the younger players in the team. Not many are not yet established members in the side. Players with potential like Lonwabo Tsotsobe, Alviro Peterson and Faf du Plessis need to perform consistently and be given more opportunities to help establish themselves. They all possess enormous talent, but debacles like the World Cup and a few other unsuccessful campaigns dent their confidence. Someone needs to instill this confidence back into them, and by the looks of it Kirsten and de Villiers are the right kind of men for this job.
Although Smith's captaincy was aggressive and instinctive, he somehow never seemed to be his usual self under pressure. AB de Villiers has never captained a team at first-class level, but he sure must've learnt a lot and gathered precious insights from a captain like Greame Smith. AB de Villiers has always performed during crunch times. His elegance was evident in the World Cup where he scored two amazing successive centuries. Combining the prudent captaincy methods which he has observed and gained from over the last seven years under Smith along with the ability to perform under pressure is exactly the kind of captain South Africa will be happy to have.
Kirsten has, however, been offered a two year contract with the team, but there are many momentous tournaments, plus a World Twenty20 next year in which the Proteas can certainly prove their point. He has been in a similar situation before with Team India. He was praised and appreciated by almost all including the players at the end of his tenure. Dhoni described him as "The best thing to happen to Indian cricket." Can he do the same to South Africa and help them perform better under pressure?
With reduced stress and more freedom given to players like Smith and Kallis, the rise of a young talented spinner in the form of Imran Tahir and a combination of savvy all-rounders in addition to a deadly pace attack, South Africa are fresh and determined to take the cricketing world by storm and stamp their authority thereby willing to add a few 'coveted' trophies to their cabinet.
(If cricket is a religion and has many devotees, Karthik Parimal would be a primary worshipper. This 23 year old graduate student, pursuing his Masters in Engineering, could be an appropriate example of how the layers of what inspires, motivates and keeps one happy run deeply in our daily lives. He, unlike others, is not too disappointed about not making it big by playing for the country, but believes that he plays the sport every day with his heart by watching and writing on it)