Freez­ing on the big stage must be ad­dressed

The Citizen (KZN) - - SPORT - @KenBor­land Ken Bor­land

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.

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