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Saturday, September 22, 2007

South African cricket woes - Twenty20 meltdown

The World Twenty20 Championships is flying by. As I write this, the first semi-final is about to begin, followed almost immediately by the second and then the final tomorrow. It seems like just two weeks ago that this tournament began. Oh, hang on, it did! I recall the 50-Over World Cup earlier this year, lasting all of 55 days! This two week tournament has been a breath of fresh air.

Not quite a breath of fresh air was South Africa's performance the other night. The afore-mentioned first semi-final, about to begin features Pakistan against NEW ZEALAND. Not South Africa, and we had all taken for granted that we were there. In fact, many South Africans had probably not even considered the possibility that we would not win the trophy, let alone make the semi-finals. But, in the words of Graeme Smith, "I guess we do find ways to get out of these tournaments... It's very disappointing knowing you've lost only one game in the tournament and you're out... That does seem a little bit weird" (More on this later)

The post-mortems have been done, and done extensively, as one might expect considering South Africa's history of such performances at major tournaments. You can read these articles and discussions around SA cricket at the following links:

Bitter pill for SA cricket fans
South African cricket chokers - IOL
South Africa choke on their lines again - Cricinfo

One thing that I would like to emphasize, in defence of South Africa, is that the outcome of these Twenty20 game s is tenuous at best. The margins for error are so small, the difference between winning and losing so tiny, that to have thought we were guaranteed to make the semi-final was presumptious to begin with.

Some of the reaction to this loss is therefore slightly over the top - this kind of loss could happen to anyone - ask Australia, who have had some incredibly embarassing Twenty20 losses (a hiding against England and the Zimbabwe game come to mind). Twenty20 cricket can be a game of 'all or nothing', the difference between 200 for 4 and 120 all out is perhaps three or four critical balls in the innings. But the nature of the game makes the comments of Smith after the final all the more irrelevant and concerning.

In the post match interview, Smith pointed out that this was South Africa's first loss and now we are out. He called this situation "a little weird". What does this have to do with anything? Yes, granted, the format of the tournament meant that certain matches were, to be blunt, irrelevant (Australia-Zimbabwe turned out to be one such match - a warmup game and wake-up call for Australia, and then they go on to win the games that matter). But South Africa knew the game against India was not irrelevant, they knew precisely what needed to be done and at this juncture, they could not do it. So looking back and reminding the 'gullible' South African fan that we lost only once is patronizing.

The fact is, that loss was so bad it saw us plummet from first to third, when only two go through. The design of this competition was always going to create 'knock-out' matches in the back end of the Super 8 phase. Australia and Sri Lanka played out what was basically a quarterfinal in Cape Town. Australia won by 10 wickets. South Africa didn't even have to win, but they failed to lose well enough to even make the next game, so to remind us of the fact that we beat Bangladesh, England, the West Indies (who couldn't be anyone) and New Zealand is really irrelevant.

The second thing Smith pointed out is that up to this point, we've been the best team in the tournament and had played good cricket. This too, is irrelevant, because as any sportsman knows, you're "only as good as your last game" (to use a cliche).

But more to the point, it isn't true. It seems to me, and I say this at risk of being called unpatriotic, that South Africans, more than anyone else, have an inflated sense of our own potential. We are world-beaters in our own minds, with a tendency to create invincibles out of mediocrity. This is most apparent in our long distance running, where our running fraternity celebrate 'world class' mediocrity almost every weekend. We enthuse over average performances, while the rest of the world get on with creating world class quality. Have we lost touch with reality?

This South African cricket team were in trouble against England, and were saved by basically three blows by Morkel and embarassing fielding from England. They were in trouble against New Zealand, saved by Kemp's big hitting and Billy Doctrove's umpiring. And yes, a hall mark of a good team is that they can win from difficult situations. But not all the time. An umpiring decision here or there, a dropped catch, a risk that pays off or fails, and you have a different game, so you can never rely on your past as a sign that your future will be good too. Past performance does not predict future performance, sorry to say. And so three games in a row was a game too far for our middle order to rescue the team. So when Smith points out that we played the best cricket of the tournament, he'd do well to remember that perhaps Sri Lanka felt the same way, until their wheels came off. Heck, Bangladesh probably felt they were unlucky to lose a couple of games here and there. The same thing happened in 1999, where we felt we were the best team in the tournament, even though it was Lance Klusener who had to rescue us from near impossible situations almost every game. Eventually, he couldn't, and we felt robbed. Truth is, any other tournament, we'd have been eliminated long before the semi-finals.

Few people learn from success. Australia has, in the past, used success as a platform to build more success. There is a saying in war, which I recall reading once, that you never send a messenger on the same route twice, even if he was successful the first time, because once a route's been used, the enemy is onto it. Chances are, sending him out there the second time would fail. And that mentality - innovate while winning, is what has given Australia near-invicibility in the last 10 years. South Africa, on the other hand, seem to run the same template over and over, even when it fails. So while Australia seems to learn from success, we appear to be struggling to learn from our failures. Perhaps this latest episode will turn that around...