South Africa has once again entered a major ICC tournament as favourites, and once again crashed out. The alarming regularity of this occurrence has home fans cringing and exhausted with excuses. Just what is going wrong?
The Protea’s have over the last 15 years or so been in the top two in both ODI and Test rankings at the end of almost every year. When stats are compiled after each season South Africa regularly tops the consistency charts yet their record in big games has had them labelled chokers for some time. Is their something symptomatic in the South African set up or mind that has led to this alarmingly predictable and painful demise that they put themselves through and their fans through at each big tournament? The period that these events lay between is so far apart that the faces involved have changed many times, yet the results have not. Can they handle pressure?
On paper, and results wise, this last week not withstanding, this is the best South African team produced since readmission. On paper this is the best balanced team in world cricket. There performance and consistency at the T20 World Cup in England was evident of that, until they come unstuck against Pakistan in the semi finals. Their home and away ODI series wins against Australia do so too. The Test team managed to do what no other South African team has done since readmission, and no other world team had done in almost two decades, win a series in Australia. And they did it the hard way, under intense pressure where their character and will was tested as much as their skill. Once again this tournament, the ICC Champions Trophy, was seen as their opportunity to put right the many wrongs that have befallen them in major tournaments before. This time they would put things right. This time they’d win. Yet again, just as it happened time and time before, they failed. Just as it had happened when they hosted other ICC events, the World Cup in 2003 and the T20 World Cup in 2007, they failed to get through to the semi finals.
It does seem that while there is a palpable will by the Protea’s to end their draught, and put the unwanted tags behind them, a feeling that getting that one win under their belts will lead to a domination of the Australia type in cricket, they just aren’t learning lessons from each failure. Looking at the way they have been ousted from all major tournaments since readmission, losing to England in the semi final of the WC in ’92, to the West Indies in the quarter finals in ’96, to Australia in the semi’s in ’99, to Sri Lanka in the last group game in ’03, to India in the T20 World Cup in ’07, to Pakistan in the T20 World Cup semi final this year, and against England on Sunday, South Africa have always failed batting second in pressure games. Being knocked out by Australia in the 2007 World Cup in the semi’s and by West Indies in the last Champions Trophy are the exceptions. South Africa has a problem chasing in big matches. This is a major problem for a team that likes to chase. The Protea’s have always prided themselves on having a deep batting line up, and so feel comfortable chasing targets. But the pressure is more intense on the side batting second in a do or die match, with the team taking first strike having runs on the board, and more freedom with no run rates to compete with. When batting first the run rate will take on a natural progression of setting a pace in the bowling powerplays, consolidating during the middle period, and launching an attack during the last 10, which tend to include the batting power play. When batting second that progression is over powered by trying to keep up with the required run rate, adding more pressure onto each in coming batsman. Something South Africa have found hard to cope with. Clearly they need a rethink on their chase chase chase philosophy. During a bilateral or tri-nations series that rigid formula may work because you always have the next game to come. You just need to win more than you lose. In a knock out match the pressures are different, there is no next match if you lose. South Africa need to think about batting first, getting runs on the board, giving their bowlers something to aim for, and letting their brilliant fielders create pressure. Win the toss and bat, bat, bat.
Another problem South Africa has when it comes to knock out cricket is inflexibility. Whether plan A comes from the coach or the captain there seems to be a stricked, no budging, approach with no plan b in sight. They bat from 1 to 11 with no alterations depending on the situation. As before this approach is fine in an ODI series but in a knock out match you need to be flexible. In the match against England on Sunday there were two chances for flexibility to be used in the South African batting innings. The first option concerned the batting powerplay. South Africa tends to always take their batting powerplay from around the 42nd -45th overs. They say they want to make full use of Albie Morkels big hitting towards the end of an innings. What could have been done was for South Africa to take their powerplay when Smith and de Villiers were going well. Before the advent of the batting powerplay teams were comfortable going at 10 an over for the last 10 overs. This has been more evident with the increased importance of T20 cricket. So why take the powerplay then if that’s what you’d be aiming for anyway? Taking it in the middle of the innings, with two set batsmen would allow you to get ahead of the rate, lessening the pressure for following batsman to come in and be expected to keep up with the rate from ball one, and more importantly, would force the bowling team to alter their tactics. Had South Africa done so on Sunday then England would have been forced to bring Anderson on at this time and this would have meant that he wouldn’t have overs to bowl at the end, giving those chasing in the last 10 a much better chance.
Flexibility with the batting order is something else South Africa needs to consider. At the moment Albie Morkel is not offering as much as he can or would like to the team. His bowling has been suffering for a while now, but his batting is not being utilised. He has only one 50 in 43 matches, a 97 he made against Zimbabwe batting at number 3. But he’s stuck at 7 in a rigid order that has him coming in and not being allowed to get set, with expectations of him clearing the boundary from ball one. The same was seen with Lance Klusner at the latter part of his career. Klusner scored 100’s at the top of the order, so why not allow Morkel to come in earlier in some games? Give him the chance to get set and score a big innings as apposed to the 20’s we are seeing from him now. Should the gamble fail you’ve still got the likes of Duminy and Boucher to recover for you, and should it pay off you’ll get devastating results. Morkel would be the best to use in this way, but Roloef van der Merwe would be another who could do a job. South Africa needs to make better use of the talent available to them and not be so stuck in a certain way. Pakistan should be an example of this, with their use of the likes of Afridi in all batting positions. Pakistan has a World Cup and T20 World Cup to their names, as well as appearing in other finals of both. South Africa needs to be more flexible.
Perhaps the biggest mistake South Africa made this time was in their preparation for the Champions Trophy. When South Africa beat Australia in Australia in the Test and ODI Series it was expected to be the turning of the corner for this team. They were expected to dominate world cricket from them, beginning with easily beating the Aussies in the return series at home. They promptly lost the first two tests, and with it the test series, before winning the final test and the ODI series. The slow start was put down to a lack of match practice before the first test. While Australia arrived and played warm up games the Protea’s thought they were ready enough with out game time. They were caught cold. It seems lessons weren’t learned from then. South Africa had not played any cricket since the T20 World Cup 3 months ago, and no ODI cricket since Australia left in April. Every other team arrived with some cricket behind them. Yet South Africa was content with a conditioning camp and a single warm up game, against a sub par West Indies team. They weren’t tested and more importantly weren’t ready. South Africa’s batting line up, with Smith, Gibbs, Kallis, de Villiers, Duminy, Boucher and Morkel is one of the best in world cricket. But their bowling attack is well balanced and formidable in its own right, led by Dale Steyn and the promising Wayne Parnell, and brilliantly supported by the spin twins of Botha and van der Merwe. South Africa’s once predictable and one dimensional attack is now the most balanced around. But a lack of match bowling left them under cooked and ill prepared, and conceding 300 in two of their three games is all the proof that is needed of this fact.
These aren’t new problems and mistakes that the team is facing. There is little excuse as to why they have been repeated. If this team is to enjoy the success and reputations that they deserve they must face them and most importantly learn from them. Something that they clearly have failed to do so. This Protea’s team has the potential to go on to be one of the best teams ever in cricket history, but until they win a major ICC event, that’s all they will be, a potentially great team. There is a feeling that one win will lead to many more, but the one must come first. The T20 World Cup next year and the ICC World Cup the following year gives this team two more chances to show the world what they know – they are the best. Lessons learned will help.
pic from cricinfo.com