An all-too-fa­mil­iar fear of fail­ure and Cricket SA’s eva­sive tac­tics are the tired old rea­sons for Sun­day’s dis­mal loss to In­dia, writes Luke Al­fred

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Watching Shane Warne play cricket was al­ways an ex­er­cise in theatre. Warne used to pause at the top of his mark, non­cha­lantly toss­ing the ball from hand to hand. He knew the match could not progress with­out him – and the bats­man, the um­pires, the ex­pec­tant crowd, all had to wait. And so he stood, in­sou­ciant, wrest­ing a few pre­cious sec­onds from the spec­ta­cle. Op­po­site stood the bats­man, twitchy if he was lucky, doom-shad­owed if he was not.

Com­men­ta­tors twit­tered. Spec­ta­tors drew breath. Even the busy lit­tle boys, un­der­stand­ing at some level deep in their bones, stood mo­men­tar­ily still.

Then the fa­mous eight paces – a pur­pose­ful stroll, noth­ing more – be­fore he at­tacked the crease and the ball snapped and fizzed. With Warne bowl­ing in a sta­dium you felt his au­dac­ity, the mon­stros­ity of his ego, his mas­tery of time. It was a cricket pageant, full of epic sweep. Pure unadul­ter­ated theatre.

Con­trast Warne’s re­fusal to be hur­ried with the Proteas’ de­ranged, thought­less scram­ble against In­dia in the Cham­pi­ons Tro­phy on Sun­day. Bat­ting first, there was slow scor­ing to be­gin with, even the nor­mally free­wheel­ing Quin­ton de Kock look­ing strangely out of sorts.

De Kock and his part­ner, Hashim Amla – he of the sup­ple wrists and the hau­teur – are not the greatest of run­ners in pres­sure sit­u­a­tions and it showed. There were a cou­ple of close shaves be­fore Amla, strug­gling with his tim­ing, feath­ered a catch to MS Dhoni be­hind the stumps; De Kock, mis­judg­ing a sweep, went soon af­ter­wards, and sud­denly AB de Vil­liers was at the crease.

Surely South Africa’s best bats­man would see this fid­gety start right?

Early im­pres­sions were good. De Vil­liers kissed a cou­ple of drives into the cov­ers, played one shot grace­fully off his nose. Then came the de­scent into mad­ness. Faf du Plessis, his part­ner and some­one who has played with him since his first team days at Affies in Pre­to­ria 15 years ago, called him for a sin­gle. De Vil­liers ac­cepted the call and was run out by cen­time­tres, the dis­missal a replica of what hap­pened six years ago in a World Cup quar­ter­fi­nal against New Zealand in Dhaka in Bangladesh.

Worse was to fol­low. Soon af­ter De Vil­liers’ run-out, Du Plessis and David Miller found them­selves stranded at the same end. The verb is the cor­rect one, for it speaks of be­ing lost, with­out a map or com­pass home. Truth be told, the Proteas had been lost in this com­pe­ti­tion long be­fore now. They had over­come some dif­fi­cult mo­ments against Sri Lanka to romp to vic­tory, but all the psy­cho­log­i­cal fragili­ties were laid bare in los­ing by 19 runs on the Duck­worth-Lewis method against Pak­istan at Edg­bas­ton in Birm­ing­ham a cou­ple of days later.

It was at Edg­bas­ton 18 years ago when Han­sie Cronje’s South African team tied a World Cup semi­fi­nal against Steve Waugh’s Aus­tralian squad, Warne bowl­ing two im­mac­u­late spells which de­fined the game. The abid­ing im­age from that match is of Lance Klusener and Al­lan Don­ald be­ing stranded – that word – at the same end, ex­actly what tran­spired to Du Plessis and Miller against In­dia at the Oval.

Matches may come and go. Se­ries may be won and lost. But there we were, stranded back in 1999. Time had marched on, but noth­ing had changed. South African cricket, with all its no­ble trans­for­ma­tion cri­te­ria, with all its in­de­pen­dent di­rec­tors and money in the bank, could not coax a vic­tory from some of the high­est paid crick­eters in the world. Truth be told, they did not know how. Who would have thought that knock­out cricket on the in­ter­na­tional stage could be so eerily rem­i­nis­cent of The Ea­gles’ Ho­tel Cal­i­for­nia, a bad dream place where “You can check out any time you like/ But you can never leave”?

Run-outs in cricket are what own goals are to foot­ball, what knock-ons are to rugby. Not only do they speak of the shift­ing psy­cho­log­i­cal tides that ebb and flow through any game, they speak of some­thing re­pressed break­ing the sur­face. What is re­pressed in South African cricket is a de­bil­i­tat­ing fear of fail­ure, a fear mag­ni­fied – and so, given life – by the fact that we live in a shame-based cul­ture which deems it shame­ful to fail. The fear of fail­ure leads to panic and panic leads to ac­tual fail­ure, an al­most sin­is­ter clos­ing of the cir­cle. Once panic sets in, you have run-outs and pe­cu­liar de­ci­sions, the kind of Gothic haunt­ings that we thought we might have got rid of.

One prac­ti­cal way to off­set panic is to know your­self well enough to breathe deeply and take stock – to do, in other words, what Warne did nat­u­rally as he stood at the top of his mark and slowed the game down to his pace. Warne never al­lowed him­self to be­come sub­servient to the game and con­text in which he was play­ing, no mat­ter how height­ened. He al­ways strove for mas­tery of time, a pre­lude to mas­ter­ing the op­po­si­tion. You might have ex­pected bet­ter from the well-trav­elled, widely played Proteas play­ers such as Amla, Du Plessis and De Vil­liers, but such is the weight of his­tory that they crum­pled like popped bal­loons. To see such fine play­ers re­duced to such quak­ing in­com­pe­tents at the Oval was heart-break­ing. Some of the blame for all of this must be placed at Cricket SA’s (CSA’s) door. Rus­sell Domingo, the na­tional coach, has been asked to reap­ply for his job and has so far shown great re­luc­tance to do so. If ever you wanted to desta­bilise a na­tional coach go­ing into a ma­jor in­ter­na­tional tour­na­ment, you pull this kind of trumped-up trick mas­querad­ing as a le­gal re­quire­ment. Domingo can hardly be blamed for not feel­ing the love. A tough four-Test se­ries against Eng­land is hov­er­ing and he is not feel­ing wanted. Who could blame him if he qui­etly gave up? Then there’s the mat­ter of CSA fail­ing abysmally to for­mally (and pub­li­cally) ad­dress the Proteas’ shock­ing record in both 50over and T20 in­ter­na­tional cricket go­ing back 20 years. The se­cret to un­rav­el­ling the co­nun­drum surely lies in cre­at­ing a cul­ture of can­dour within the team – a point well made this week by Paddy Up­ton, Gary Kirsten’s num­ber two when Kirsten was na­tional coach. Said Up­ton: “It is very much the ‘cow­boys don’t cry’ cul­ture, and play­ers are gen­er­ally scared of re­veal­ing them­selves and mak­ing them­selves vul­ner­a­ble. When AB spoke of be­ing a lit­tle anx­ious in the team huddle on day two – I think it was – of the sec­ond Test against Eng­land in 2012, you could just feel the relief be­cause other guys were feel­ing it too.” Af­ter the Proteas’ fail­ure to reach the sec­ond round of the World T20 fi­nals in In­dia last March, CSA brought in Fran­cois Pienaar and Adam Bacher, among oth­ers, to head up an in­de­pen­dent re­view of na­tional teams. Af­ter ini­tial en­thu­si­asm, the re­view was aban­doned, with CSA sus­pi­ciously cit­ing lack of clar­ity on the re­view’s scope. Now we find our­selves in the same sit­u­a­tion. Will CSA launch an­other re­view to get to the bot­tom of the Proteas’ re­cent fail­ures in Eng­land, only to moth­ball it when the pub­lic’s out­cry has sub­sided? Or, will they es­tab­lish a re­view to re­view the fail­ure of the last re­view? Your guess is as good as mine.


Chris Mor­ris, Im­ran Tahir and Andile Phehluk­wayo of South Africa re­act to the team’s poor form dur­ing the In­ter­na­tional Cricket Coun­cil’s Cham­pi­ons Tro­phy match be­tween In­dia and South Africa at the Kia Oval cricket ground

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