Proteas keep `chokers` tag

Proteas keep 'chokers' tag

Last Updated: Fri, Jun 19, 2009 11:05 hrs
<span style="font-family: arial; font-size: 12px; white-space: pre-wrap; ">Smith</span>

Partab Ramchand

It was only on the eve of the Twenty20 World Cup semifinal against Pakistan that Graeme Smith said that this South African side would prove that they have shed their tag of perennial chokers. About 24 hours later the South African captain was at a loss to play down the chokers tag following their seven-run defeat that knocked the title favourites out of the tournament.

Previous South Africa sides have been accused of wilting under pressure in major competitions but after his side defended a modest 130 to beat India by 12 runs, Smith argued that his team has come a long way and have proved that they can produce positive results under pressure. What then went wrong against Pakistan to have the chokers tag once again firmly pressed against them?

Indian cricket lacking vision

Rather than blame his team a crestfallen Smith preferred to give credit to Pakistan and to Shahid Afridi in particular. But the fact remains that a target of 150 was eminently gettable for a side that was on song, having won seven T20 internationals in a row including all five they had played in the World Cup before the semifinal.

On all round skills and team balance South Africa were the team to beat and everyone's favourite to win the title. And yet the chokers tag that has haunted them ever since their return to the international fold in 1991 just refuses to go away.

On paper there is no reason to believe that South Africa cannot add substantially to the one international trophy they have won, the inaugural ICC Champions Trophy, or mini World Cup as it was then christened, in Dhaka in 1998.

Over the years their cricketers have been remarkably athletic in the field and the epitome of fitness. They have had a number of great players and while traditionally their chief strength has been the bowling and fielding in recent years the batting too has clicked in a big way symbolised by the great deeds of Jacques Kallis.

And yet somehow at the final hurdle or just before the winning post they have faltered and have not enjoyed a run of success that the balanced team personnel should normally have given them.

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The chokers tag in fact can be traced to the very first Test South Africa played on their return - against West Indies in Bridgetown in April 1992: After obtaining a first innings lead of 83 runs the visitors had to score only 201 runs for victory. But quite inexplicably they collapsed from 123 for two to 148 all out before the dual pace battery of Courtney Walsh and Curtley Ambrose.

At the time this unexpected defeat from a position of strength was put down to inexperience but over the years it happened too often and that was how the South Africans acquired the unwanted 'c' word. I well remember the Test against India at Ahmedabad in 1996: South Africa had got a first innings lead of 21 runs and were then left a modest target of 170. But they crumbled before Javagal Srinath and slid to 105 all out.

In ODIs this crumbling under pressure or going down to defeats when least expected became the norm. In the 1996 World Cup in the sub continent South Africa won all their five matches in the group and looked like the team to beat.

And yet in their first match after this dream run they went down in the quarterfinal to the West Indies after seemingly having the match in their grasp. Three years later in England in the famous World Cup semifinal against Australia that ended in a tie and their elimination South Africa required just one run to win off four balls with Lance Klusener in murderous mood - and yet they couldn't get that single run while Allan Donald was run out. Four years later in their own backyard a simple miscalculation of a single run cost them a place in the Super Eights.

T20 World Cup

One reckoned that South Africa would have shed the chokers tag once and for all after their memorable victory over Australia at Johannesburg in March 2006 when they chased down 434 and won with a wicket and a ball to spare in one of the most memorable ODIs of all time.

And since then while they have notched up several notable victories in the various formats of the game and have attained No 1 status in both Tests and ODIs the impression that in a crunch situation they are still losers is firmly etched in the minds of cricket fans.

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