The choke's on South Africa, yet again

Jamie Alter | Updated: June 20, 2013, 8:13 AM IST
The choke's on South Africa, yet again

And so, not to the surprise of a whole lot of people, South Africa have exited another ICC tournament in the knock-out stage. And, almost expectedly, their seven-wicket defeat to England at The Oval in Wednesday's ICC Champions Trophy semi-final has brought out the c-word again. For the initiated, that's 'choke'.

It's a word that's been associated with South African cricket teams since the 1990s. It's a word that has haunted, irritated, infuriated, confounded and shamed them. It's a word that has been shunned by several South African teams, understandably. It's a word that this current South African team, under AB de Villiers, has not been afraid of using.

"I believe all teams choke in certain situations. It's just we somehow managed to get that tag behind our names." said de Villiers, South Africa's captain, before the first semi-final. After defeat, the c-word did not once come up in de Villiers' post-match chat. In 24 hours, the mood had changed drastically.

The script for South Africa's campaign in the Champions Trophy has read pretty much the same as it always has in major limited-overs tournaments. Strong on paper (yes, strong enough despite Graeme Smith being injured and Jacques Kallis having opting out). Bristling with talent. Excellent fielding side. Qualify fast bowlers. The best in the world, in fact, heads the attack. The top two ICC-ranked batsmen are in the side. The most innovate batsman in the world and arguably the best fielder captains them. They were brimming with confidence.

But, once again, they fell short. In the knock-out stage. Whether the latest capitulation can be termed a choke is debatable, because they were not chasing a huge target, the pitch was not dodgy and the bowling not red-hot or unplayable. England are at best an honest, hard-working ODI team - no disrespect to the excellent James Anderson - and that South Africa were reduced to 80 for 8 had more to do with poor batting than vicious bowling.

South Africa came into the semi-finals after losing to India in the tournament opener, then two wins over Pakistan and West Indies. They looked genuine contenders for the title, second to India who have been the team to beat and just ahead of England whose inability to fully grasp the ODI game has dogged them for long. On the day, the batsmen imploded. Nerves? Maybe. Poor application? Yes.

It look just five deliveries for the rot to set in. Colin Ingram rapped on the pads in front of middle and leg. A nervous look at the umpire, then to his batting partner Hashim Amla for hope. It didn't come. First wicket to Anderson. Five deliveries later, Amla - the bearded sage who looted England in the ODIs last year - was late withdrawing his bat and was brilliantly held by Jos Buttler behind the stumps. 4 for 2.

It was all too familiar. The seed was growing. Robin Peterson, promoted to No. 3, looked at odds during his 30 which ended when he fell to a wonderful sucker-punch from Anderson. 45 for 3. Cue the panic. AB de Villiers, kept quiet and scoreless for eight deliveries. Admirable restraint? Setting himself up for a big innings? Scratch that. De Villiers flashed outside off stump at his ninth delivery, as loose a shot as he would have ever played, and edged to Buttler. With that filthy shot went South Africa's faith.

Faf du Plessis, JP Duminy and Chris Morris slashed and quickly burned. Ryan McLaren's charge at James Tredwell should be reviewed and held against him. David Miller and Rory Kleinveldt put up a brave fight but a total of 175 in 38.4 overs - a whole 11.2 overs to spare is atrocious - was never going to test a well-oiled England batting order.

Oddly enough, watching the match one never got the feeling that someone would stand up and be counted. Not for once did the arrival of a new batsman really settle the mind. It was as if you knew the script that would unfold, leading to another epic defeat. It was, after all, in their South Africa's history. It was a habit.

Refresh your memory. The 1996 World Cup quarter-finals, South Africa looking contenders until a woeful middle-order collapse against the innocuous spin of Roger Harper and Jimmy Adams. The Carlton & United Series of 1997, South Africa one-up over Australia in the best-of-three finals, only to lose 2-1. Against Sri Lanka in the final of the Singer Triangular, the middle order collapses to Muttiah Muralitharan. The 2002 Champions Trophy semi-final against India, South Africa are 192 for 1 chasing 262, end up losing by 10 runs.

And then there was that match. June 17, 1999, a day that will forever be etched in South Africa's cricketing history. One run needed to reach the World Cup final, Lance Klusener and Allan Donald lose the plot. A dream shattered. Come the 2003 World Cup, at home, and South Africa are prematurely ousted after not taking their cricket - and Messrs. Duckworth and Lewis - nearly as serious as they should have. Chokes in the 2007 World Cup semi-final, the 2009 Champions Trophy, a World Twenty20, and the 2011 World Cup quarter-finals followed. Then there was The Oval.

This is the tournament that they won in 1998 (their only ICC silverware) and will remain their only win, since this is the last edition of the tournament. The joke, and the choke, is on them.

First Published: June 20, 2013, 8:13 AM IST

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1 India 3925 123
2 South Africa 3050 117
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4 England 3362 99
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