The Achilles Heel for South Africa in Big Tournaments.
South Africa once again fell agonizingly short of making it through to the finals after New Zealand clinched a nail-biter at Auckland in 2015 World Cup.
Since 1992, South African cricket has done admirably well given the country had been in isolation for a period of two decades.
However, during the course of this period, nobody has been able to understand why they fail at critical moments in world tournaments.
South Africans have a lot of resemblance in this respect with the Dutch soccer team, which has time-and-again fell agonizingly close to winning a FIFA World Cup.
In the long version of the game though, South Africa have largely performed well and their style of play really suits them. Test Cricket is all about grinding it out in terms of executing your processes and plans over a period of five days. Still, although purists deem Test cricket to be the pinnacle in the game, World Cup has taken precedence over it lately due to lot of fans deeming it as the biggest prize in cricket.
The first instance of South Africa falling perilously short of making it through to the finals of World Cup was during their first outing in a big tournament. Proteas did perform exceptionally well and exceeded everyone’s expectations.
The 1996 World Cup quarterfinal was a tactical blunder rather than a choke as management and captain Hansie Cronje decided to drop Allan Donald and bring in Paul Adams. We wonder how many of the teams around the world would have done that keeping in mind an extreme fast bowler like Donald in his pomp could cause havoc and produce match-winning spells on any surface.
The 1999 World Cup then saw South Africa brushing aside every team in its way but they got stuck against their mentally tough opponents in Australia in the semifinals. South Africa capitulated as there was no clear communication between Lance Klusener and Allan Donald in the final over. Donald was left stranded in the middle as he was run out and Australia went through to the finals.
All the World Cups after that have also held similar themes for South Africa as pundits never quite understand or point fingers on why they choke in global events.
For me, the first reason is that South African sides have always been regimented in terms of play and planning but in big games in the World Cup, one can never set any plans before the start because anything can happen on big days such as semifinals and finals of a Cricket World Cup.
South Africa is a side which comes with set plans but they tend to wait for the opposition to make mistakes, which makes them very predictable.
In World Cup 2015 too, AB de Villiers was tactically poor on the night against New Zealand in the semifinals at Eden Park, Auckland. A premier bowler like Dale Steyn was allowed to keep bowling short from start till the end to see his side bow out of the tournament in utter grief and sadness.
The following months a dossier was leaked which revealed that Steyn was told that the plan was to bowl short but it bemused so many cricket pundits and players that how come a premier fast bowler gets indoctrinated or dictated by a piece of paper. Steyn should have applied his mind and bowled a yorker to Grant Elliott.
In big games in Cricket World Cups, a team can never sit back and wait for the opposition to make mistakes. This is why South Africa have lost so many semifinals either due to tactical blunders or going in with set game plans i.e. becoming predicable when the opposition knows what are they going to offer in a big game.
Sourav Ganguly once pointed out during the Champions Trophy 2013 in England that South Africa became one-dimensional at times when they kept bowling short to Shikhar Dhawan till the end overs, allowing him to score over 140 runs.
The curse for South Africa will end when they are blessed with a captain who thinks aggressively and tells his side to keep their nerves at critical moments. No matter how many sports psychologists you employ in a dressing room, the onus will always be on individual players to confront their demons on the field and outperform the opposition.