There is no way to mimic the kind of pressure that a World Cup produces. Sure, you can treat a bilateral series decider as if it was a knockout game, as South Africa tried to do against Australia in Hobart last November, but rest assured, it’s not the same.
South Africa face Australia in the final round-robin match of the World Cup in Manchester on July 6; if there’s a semi-final spot riding on the outcome, the mentality and the tension will be a whole lot different to what it was in Hobart last November. And there’s no point beating around the bush, South Africa have a history of mental meltdowns. Their opponents all know it, and they will not hesitate to remind them so, when the tournament gets going and especially in matches which matter.
When outlining why Hashim Amla remained a far more preferred choice at the top of the order selection convenor, Linda Zondi, ran through a list of very detailed statistics, outlining career averages and series averages too.
But measuring how a player will cope under pressure is an intangible for which there are no numbers. For one the selectors were right to back Amla’s experience. Reeza Hendricks and Aiden Markram didn’t do enough to knock him off his perch, and Amla’s experience and composure will be a valued commodity. It’s also much easier to have faith in someone with more experience because you trust they’ll be able to find a way to deliver their best in high pressure situations.
But Amla has also been a part of Proteas meltdowns - the ICC Champions Trophy semi-final in 2013 and the World Cup quarter-final in 2011. There are scars there as there are for the likes of Faf du Plessis and Dale Steyn.
Zondi said yesterday he and his panel considered those matches and the impact they had on the players which is why they’ve crafted a careful balance in the 15-man squad. “There’s a tag that’s there with South Africa at big tournaments, I won’t say it, but it’s there," said Zondi. “It” is choking.
So why would this group of players picked by Zondi, be different? “When I’ve been with the team what’s been nice, is seeing the young guys, Quinton de Kock, Kagiso Rabada, they don’t use this tag, they don’t care, they don’t understand how it came about.”
Well if they don’t know how it came about, they’ll learn all about it once in England - it is after all nearly the 20th anniversary since the daddy of all chokes, the game that gave South African cricket this unfortunate tag.
But Zondi is also right in a sense. There are seven players in his squad who haven’t played in a World Cup and thus haven’t choked on the biggest stage. Perhaps most importantly there are also three players; Rabada, Markram and Andile Phehlukwayo, who actually know what it’s like to lift a World Cup in cricket, albeit a junior one. But if choking leaves scars, then not choking and winning also has its benefits. That young trio will know those benefits. At senior level too, Markram has spent his career in a successful Titans side, and has played match-winning innings’ in finals -albeit domestic ones. Just this season, Rabada was part of the first winners of the Mzansi Super League. Those are not triumphs on a World Cup scale, but they provide a player with a sense of how to deal with pressure situations.
And that’s what Zondi hopes the squad can draw on. “When you look at the guys who’ve not played a World Cup, these are match winners. We have three boys who’ve won the under-19 World Cup; Markram, Phehlukwayo and KG, that’s what we are looking for. It’s so important.”
And yet the pressure is still different. Averages, strike rates, runs in the power plays can all be measured; mental fortitude can’t be.
Like all South Africans, Zondi is hopeful the group of players he’s selected won’t succumb where others - some of the greatest cricketers this country has produced - have failed.@shockerhess