Freezing on the big stage must be addressed
Judging by AB de Villiers’ comments after the Champions Trophy fiasco, South Africa could go speeding towards the 2019 World Cup having still not addressed the elephant in the dressing room which is their continued, inexplicable failure to perform at their best in ICC knockout matches.
The Proteas are scheduled to play just 36 more ODIs before the June 2019 World Cup in England; they have played 36 ODIs since midway through their series in India in October 2015, just to give some perspective as to how quickly time will fly before the next showpiece ICC tournament starts.
And yet De Villiers maintained after the horrible showing against India last weekend that there was no lack of composure and the runouts and batting failures were not due to a mental problem. Given the skills levels of the players in- volved, it’s difficult to know what else the explanation could be.
It is probably a good thing, though, that the Champions Trophy disaster is still fresh in the minds as CSA begin the process to decide on who will be the Proteas coach that will guide yet another attempt at the elusive Holy Grail for South African cricket.
Two former Proteas coaches – who were both involved in coaching capacities during India’s memorable 2011 World Cup triumph – in Gary Kirsten and Eric Simons will sit on the five-man committee that will evaluate the applications and both have been outspoken about the problems South African players have in handling the pressures of ICC knockout matches.
It is one of the unwritten laws of sport that the most successful teams are able to shift pressure on to their opposition; sadly for the Proteas, they seem to crush themselves by piling pressure on to their own shoulders. In between ICC events, they are able to play freely and express themselves, at World Cups they play totally differently – tentative and fearful cricket. Reading De Villiers’ autobiography, it is clear he has a Moby Dick-sized obsession with winning the World Cup, an unhealthy obsession that probably does more harm than good.
The big difference between De Villiers and Virat Kohli is how the Indian captain invariably makes big runs when they are most needed; his 96 not out in the Champions Trophy semifinal was yet another example of that.
Whoever the Proteas coach will be, he needs to be able to free up the players when it comes to the high-pressure situations. The players need to pledge to each other that they will not change their games in knockout matches and it is the captain and coach who have to drive that.
No team plays with a greater burden of expectation than India, and yet Kirsten and Simons were able to get them winning and expressing themselves when they won the World Cup on home soil under immense pressure.
Simons raised some interesting points in the aftermath of the Champions Trophy loss, both in the SuperSport studio and in a subsequent conversation I had with him.
He pointed out that the Proteas never tried to shift the pressure India exerted on them with an excellent display in the field, India were never asked to try anything different.
When I asked him why India are consistently able to handle the pressure and expectation at ICC knockout events, he said he felt it was because their international players had come through a system featuring millions of cricketers so they have spent their entire lives ensuring they are on top of their game, they are always playing under intense scrutiny and, in a developing nation still wracked by poverty, it’s do-or-die for many of them. Natural selection and survival of the fittest in many ways.
But the first step in sorting out a problem is admitting you have a problem. As Paddy Upton, who was the mental coach when India, Kirsten and Simons won the 2011 World Cup, has pointed out, it’s part of the South African macho man psyche to never admit our vulnerabilities.
That has to change.