Relief…

The miserable defeat by Pakistan was the best present any self-respecting lover and follower of South African cricket could have had. The car was always going to crash – it was just a case of hoping that neither driver nor passengers would be killed.

At least the torturous wait is over. Another embarrassing failure, done and dusted.

The difference between playing ‘series’ cricket – in which players mostly have the feeling of a second chance – and anything which remotely resembles ‘sudden death’, or ‘knockout’, is profound. Added to the fact that it is now 13 ICC world tournaments since South Africa won their one and only, the inaugural Champions Trophy in Dhaka, 1998, it is unarguable that there is a ‘problem’.

The ‘problem’ is so profound that it has managed to pass on from generation to generation. Those who have been ‘scarred’ by previous failures have inadvertently passed on their wounds to the newcomers and they, too, have frozen when ‘the’ moment to perform arrives.

Those who continue to deny that a problem exists must now be sidelined. The problem has reached bursting point and the only way forward is to address it head-on. For the first time ever in a world event, the team did not just choke when it mattered, they choked from the outset.

Albie Morkel’s 40 from 22 balls was just enough to push the Proteas to a competitive total against New Zealand which resulted in their sole, meaningful victory. But his extraordinary meltdown in the heat of the Pakistan match says more about the team’s collective failure to identify the areas in which players are effective, and where they are best utilised than it does about Morkel’s ‘big match temperament.’

India may score ‘only’ 180 against the Proteas, but Morkel’s final over – which cost 18 – should have cost at least 30. The final result should have been even more comprehensive.

That is not to say that Morkel, or any other player of his psychological make-up, does not have his place in the team. He is brilliant – in the right situation. But he is not the right man to be bowling at the death and is not the right man to display his extraordinary batting talents under the most extreme pressure. He is not alone. In fact, he is in the majority. Very few sportsmen are turned ‘on’ when the need is at its greatest.

Deciding which players are best suited to which roles is NOT a hunch. It is not about the old-fashioned captain slapping ‘his man’ on the back and telling him to ‘get on with it.’ There are hundreds of mechanisms to determine who is suited to what.

South African cricket must swallow its pride and learn. Fitness and skills have become a common area for all international teams – they are neck-and-neck. The difference now, and for years to come, will be determined by what goes on between the ears. The notion that players are ‘weak’ or ‘strong’ in times of pressure is over-rated. If not completely out-dated. And those who were once ‘strong’, or ‘weak’, can change. It is possible to measure these things. But it takes strong administrators and honest, fearless players for that to take place.

Now is the time for that to happen. The players and/or administrators who are reluctant or fearful of that process need to step aside. The rest of us deserve to be spared any further embarrassment, anger and shame. We’d all rather go down fighting than in a meek, catatonic display of resigned terror.

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