‘Chok­ers’ pur­sue great ob­ses­sion

New Straits Times - - Sport -

JO­HAN­NES­BURG: South Africa’s quest for a ma­jor in­ter­na­tional cricket tro­phy has be­come enough of an ob­ses­sion for star bats­man and one-day in­ter­na­tional cap­tain AB de Vil­liers to put his Test ca­reer on hold.

When he an­nounced in Jan­uary that he was cut­ting back on Test cricket, De Vil­liers, 33, said the main goal for the rest of his ca­reer was to win the 2019 World Cup in Eng­land.

But a vic­tory in the Cham­pi­ons Tro­phy, also in Eng­land, would go a long way to re­liev­ing the pres­sure that has built on South African teams dur­ing 19 years of near-misses and out­right fail­ures in global events — pres­sure that has seen South Africa la­belled “chok­ers” be­cause of their ten­dency to per­form well in lim­ited overs cricket but crum­ble in one­off knock­out games.

Gary Kirsten, South Africa’s coach dur­ing their pre­vi­ous Cham­pi­ons Tro­phy cam­paign, in Eng­land in 2013, con­fronted the is­sue head-on by dis­cussing the per­cep­tion with his play­ers, rather than hav­ing it as an un­seen or un­spo­ken ele­phant in the room.

South Africa reached the semi­fi­nals but Kirsten, who had al­ready an­nounced he did not plan to re­new his con­tract, ac­knowl­edged they “choked” when they were beaten by the hosts.

South Africa were the first win­ners of the Cham­pi­ons Tro­phy, then known as the ICC Knock­out, in Bangladesh in 1998.

Since then, six fur­ther knock­out/Cham­pi­ons Tro­phy tour­na­ments have pro­duced four semi­fi­nal ap­pear­ances, all of which ended in de­feat.

Dur­ing that pe­riod, four World Cups and six World Twenty20 tour­na­ments have seen a fur­ther four semi-fi­nal de­feats to go along with semi-fi­nal and quar­ter-fi­nal de­feats in their two pre1998 World Cups.

In sev­eral tour­na­ments South Africa have been im­pres­sive in the group stages be­fore fall­ing at the penul­ti­mate hur­dle.

There is ad­di­tional pres­sure for South Africa this year be­cause they were ranked as the num­ber one team in one-day in­ter­na­tional cricket when they ar­rived in Eng­land for a three-match se­ries against the hosts lead­ing into the Cham­pi­ons Tro­phy.

Fol­low­ing suc­ces­sive 5-0 clean sweeps at home against Aus­tralia and Sri Lanka last sea­son, as well as a 3-2 se­ries win away against New Zealand, De Vil­liers said: “If we play the type of cricket we have played in the past cou­ple of years I be­lieve that no-one can stop us.”

“Our big­gest strength is the bal­ance in the squad. We cover all the bases when it comes to spin, seam and proper pace bowl­ing.”

South Africa have three of the top six play­ers in the ICC one-day rank­ings, headed by De Vil­liers at num­ber one, with Faf du Plessis and wick­et­keep­ing prodigy Quin­ton de Kock in fifth and sixth places.

Leg-spin­ner Im­ran Tahir is the top-ranked bowler while fast bowler Kag­iso Rabada is fifth.

En­cour­ag­ing for South Africa is the emer­gence of all-rounders such as Chris Mor­ris and Andile Phehluk­wayo, picked pri­mar­ily for their bowl­ing abil­ity but who have shown big-match tem­per­a­ment as lower-or­der bats­men in tense run chases.

Given their his­tory in big tour­na­ments, the abil­ity to rise to the oc­ca­sion in knock­out games could be the big­gest chal­lenge for South Africa. AFP

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