Previous South African teams heading to World Cups didn’t always want to, but they were made to do so, particularly by overseas media outlets, for whom choking is the only thing they associate with a South African cricket side.
It being the 20th anniversary of the most infamous World Cup semi-final of all time – a match viewed as the one in which South Africa garnered its reputation – choking and South Africa’s propensity for it will very much be front and centre at this year’s tournament in England, starting on Thursday when hosts England face the Proteas at The Oval in London.
“I know, I’ve been there, every player is going to be asked at a press conference,” said SA captain Faf du Plessis.
It’s not so much that players will get asked, it’s that they will be asked about it repeatedly – like in India in 2011, when Graeme Smith, then SA’s captain, was asked four times in a row by one local journalist about how South Africa would deal with pressure given their history, and Smith, having already answered the question three times, retorted: “So you’ve been out there, have you, and batted under pressure.”
He was right to be angry, but the journalist also got the response he wanted – and then of course South Africa lived up to its tag in the quarter-final that year against New Zealand.
But Du Plessis and coach Ottis Gibson have not designed a plan purely for dealing with questions about the Proteas’ susceptibility to folding under pressure – as Smith had advised them to – just because the World Cup is now upon them and their team.
“I started this journey with the team a year ago, preparing them mentally. I feel like I speak the most about the mental side of cricket, more than previous captains did or other guys do, I see that as an area we can get better in,” said Du Plessis.
“It’s about a process that I’ve been speaking to the team about, trying to make them understand how they will deal with it when they get there, give them the tools; it’s about being prepared for when you get there.
“Also, the style of play we’ve been speaking about, there is method to the madness. There is a reason we told the batters to play freely, take on the game, get away from that fear of failure. Because what is a World Cup? It’s fear of failure, the pressure of letting not just your team down, but your country. All of a sudden, these conversations are happening and you’re hearing about it.
“The success for us at this tournament will depend on how well we can release that side of our mentality. We have been trying to be more open about it, to speak about it, find ways to deal with it. It’s about releasing players to be the best players they can be and not putting them in positions where we are telling them, ‘this is how we want you to play’, but finding out what is every guy’s strength in the team and then giving him backing and saying this is the best we want for the team, and hopefully we can have those performances at the tournament.”
While Du Plessis wants to confront the past, Gibson would rather not. It’s one of the very few areas when the pair differ. For Gibson, what’s gone is gone and this year’s squad – especially the eight players who’ve never played at a World Cup – should not be burdened with answering questions about mishaps by their predecessors.
“We want to leave the baggage in the baggage compartment and focus on the positive things,” is how Gibson responded to questions he’d rather the South African media don’t ask.
However, Gibson, having never been a part of a previous South African World Cup excursion, will see – it’s not something he can avoid.
“At those tournaments, people replay the baggage, highlight it, it’s like a big mirror in front of you. It’s all you hear, it’s all you see,” said the South African captain.
As for those young players, they appear, at least in the case of Lungi Ngidi, to be fairly nonplussed about the issue of choking and SA’s inability to get passed the semi-final hurdle at World Cups.
“People have spoken about the past, but it doesn’t affect us, because we have to focus on what’s in front of us now,” said Ngidi.
“A lot of people can look at the past and think when it gets to those pressure situations, ‘what’s going to happen?’ But it’s happened and you can’t control the past; we must focus on what we must do now.”
It’s a healthy outlook but no one – not the players, those in the media who love asking about it, or fans – will know until the Proteas are confronted with those demons.
“It’s about really being present, in the moment at the World Cup, not thinking about the media, the future, people talking about choking – that has no relevance to us as a team,” said the skipper.
“I feel that pressure should bring out the best in you. You shouldn’t be worried and I think we’ve spoken a lot in our team discussions about that and hopefully we’ll see a little of that in this World Cup.”