For anyone with even an inkling of interest in golf, the Open Championship of 1999 could never be forgotten.
It was the year Jean Van de Velde, leading by three on the final hole, melted on the tee.
The Frenchman’s drive went right. Then he took a shot at the green, only to see his ball ricochet off a grandstand and then bounce off a stone wall into deep rough. Fans were aghast.
It got worse. He then hit his ball into the Barry Burn, a water hazard. Van de Velde then famously removed his shoes and socks and strode through the shallow water pondering whether to try and hit the ball out.
He took a drop instead and hit his fifth shot into a greenside bunker. He finally holed out for a triple-bogey seven.
He promptly lost the three-way play-off, guaranteeing himself an unwanted place in history.
Calamité, as the French would say.
“It wasn’t something absolutely mad that I tried to do,” he said later. “It just came out to be a nightmare.”
The sad story is instructive on many levels, not least as an assurance that the Proteas aren’t the only ones who have taken choking to spectacular levels. History is shot through with examples in the sporting arena: Jana Novotna, Roberto Duran and Greg Norman to name a few.
What puts the Proteas in a league all on their own is how the curse keeps afflicting them. They seem caught in a Kafkaesque spiral of self-destruction that has no end. Last Sunday’s blowout against India was another example of pathos that follows the team like a dark shadow.
A psychosis swamps the team before major ICC events, the weight of unwanted history resting heavily on weary shoulders. The horrors of the past are rekindled and the finest of South Africa’s cricketers get stricken by panic.
It’s a dreadful reality and we prepare ourselves for the inevitable. The old email jokes and memes are retreaded and we put the boot in. Over and over.
I heard mental coach Paddy Upton talk about our serial offenders this week and he made a compelling point. He said our players tend to wear “tough guy masks” with the majority pretending their insecurities don’t exist. “Hiding it takes more energy than facing it, being real,” he said. “Mental fragility is career threatening.”
We know it’s a “thing” in SA cricket because the Proteas routinely belt touring teams and tend to go well when playing away from home – just so long as there isn’t a trophy in sight. We ascend to the top of the ODI tree and produce freakish talents like Kagiso Rabada and AB de Villiers. They provide hope and highlights, but deep down we all know that the team doesn’t have the bottle for the moments that truly count.
Caution defined SA’s batting early on against India and then came the absurd run-outs. Like Allan Donald and Lance Klusener in 1999, the image of Faf du Plessis and David Miller racing to the same end while the ball was sailing towards the other last weekend will stick long in the memory. The moment was a wretched metaphor for what the team has become: confused, paralysed, maddening.
Even a casual fan can see that something radical needs to be done. Winning is the cure, but getting there is the challenge. Ivan Lendl was labelled a choker for his failure to win Wimbledon. He made the semi-finals six times and twice lost in finals. Only when he fought back from a two-set deficit against John McEnroe to capture the 1984 French Open was he allowed to shed that label.
Winning a tournament that matters will see the Proteas cast off the worst of labels. But getting to that point, finding a way through the tangled theories and lessons and hurt, will be devilishly hard. But our team and our players are far too good not to find a way to cauterise this open wound.
The players, indeed everyone formally involved in SA cricket, bristles at mention of the c-word. But confront it they must. If not, they’ll be stuck in an eternal loop of anguish that only perpetuates their misery.