Shaun Pollock is distraught after South Africa's elimination

The not-so-fine print: a glum Shaun Pollock tries to comprehend how his side botched the Duckworth-Lewis equation in Durban in 2003

© Getty Images
19

Essay

The mother of all myths

Dismissing their team as chokers is how South Africans shrug off defeat and prepare for disappointment. The rest is hyperbole

Tom Eaton |

A thousand years ago the poor of Europe pressed together at the back of cold cathedrals and strained to hear words that would bring them everlasting life. The bishops were unreachably far away, distant specks glowing with gold and satin, but their words echoed off the stone arches and carried to the crowded doorway of the church. They were words saturated with power, resonating with magic and mystery, and the people carried them back to the farms and the villages to be whispered in prayer and used as weapons against evil and suffering. The words were: "Hocus pocus!"

What they actually heard was a Latin rite of communion: "Hoc est corpus meum", or "This is my body." To people unschooled in Latin and for whom religion and pagan magic were still deeply intertwined, "Hoc est corpus" was easily misremembered or misheard as "Hocus pocus"; a prayer transformed into a totemic, magical piece of gibberish.

That's one theory, at least, for the origin of our most famous magical incantation. It's a good story and it might even be true. But its point is well made. We have a habit of sprinkling fairy dust over certain words and phrases without necessarily knowing what they mean or why we use them.

Cricket is a sport entranced by hocus pocus. Its vocabulary resonates with one spell after another - "channel of uncertainty", "calypso cricket", "wristy" - all imbued with power and yet often left uninterrogated. Pundits and fans repeat them again and again until their meaning is all but worn off, like the grip of a well-loved bat, and when that happens, whether you're thinking or batting, slippage is possible.

The c-word: coined by Steve Waugh (except he didn't), and used liberally by fans (with scant justification)

The c-word: coined by Steve Waugh (except he didn't), and used liberally by fans (with scant justification) © AFP

Consider "choker". It's a particularly powerful cricketing spell because it can conjure not one but many scenes: World Cup favourites South Africa sleepwalking in Karachi towards their first rude awakening, mesmerised by their capitulation to the understated turn of Roger Harper and Jimmy Adams; Lance Klusener and Allan Donald arriving together at the non-striker's end at Edgbaston, surrounded by whooping Australians but seeming to stand alone in a kind of private wasteland; Shaun Pollock, looking old, slumped behind a curtain of rain; Graeme Smith at a press conference unable to feign interest in the usual disconsolate clichés.

The problem with magic, though, is that it doesn't always stand up to scrutiny. Bring up the house lights on the magician and you start seeing the strings and mirrors; and "choker" is no different. Probe a little deeper into its history and you quickly discover that for every fact there's a juicy piece of fiction.

Here's an example: "Choke is a word that has haunted South African cricket for three decades." The first odd thing about this sentence is that if you google it you'll find it in pieces by both Mark Meadows of Reuters and Sonal Bhadoria of the Times of India. I wouldn't want to accuse anyone of plagiarism so I'll leave it to their respective editors to sort out, but I would suggest that the second peculiar thing about their joint statement is that it is palpably untrue. Every cricket fan knows that South Africa only returned to the international game a little over two decades ago, and yet there it stands in black and white, on two major news websites, a small untruth on which other small untruths can be piled until the heap has gained enough height to become accepted as true knowledge.

Where it comes to South Africa's World Cup legacy, few pundits have let facts get in the way of a great bit of cricket lore

This is not to say that the Proteas haven't been awful at World Cups, or to deny that their failures have given us some of cricket's most memorable scenes. Remember when Herschelle Gibbs dropped Steve Waugh at Headingley and the grizzled Aussie sneered, "You just dropped the World Cup"? Remember how Waugh rubbed salt into the wounds at the press conference by coining the "choker" tag? Both were wonderfully evocative moments. The trouble is, neither actually happened. Words were exchanged on the field. Later, Waugh said something about the Proteas not handling pressure well. But where it comes to South Africa's World Cup legacy, few pundits have let facts get in the way of a great bit of cricket lore.

There's no denying that South Africans have found some particularly eccentric ways to leave the tournament, but do they regularly choke - that is, lose a vital game that is already mostly won? I'm not convinced, mainly because a choke implies a consistently excellent team suddenly becoming woeful, and in at least two World Cups the Proteas were little more than adequate. The Grand Klusener-Donald Conjunction of 1999 was awful to watch, but ultimately it was fitting that those two were there at the end since it was they - the magician Klusener and his mean apprentice - who had single-handedly dragged the Proteas into the knockout stage. Their impressive double act, full of bangs and whizzes, had made us believe that South Africa were still the unstoppable winning machine they had been for the previous few seasons. It convinced us we were watching another mighty team effort, even as Donald and Klusener alone shared 33 of 64 wickets taken by South Africa in the tournament. It tricked us into thinking that everyone was contributing, even as Klusener single-handedly lifted the Proteas' tournament run rate from 4.36 to 4.62. It made us believe that we were watching potential champions, even though that team, in that form, had no business being anywhere near a World Cup semi-final. And how we believed! We believed until that final ball that they had one more spell in them. Perhaps the devastation of that immortal run-out was in part the shock of returning to reality and seeing that it had all been smoke and mirrors.

Choke: rhymes with rum and coke

Choke: rhymes with rum and coke © Associated Press

The 2007 team, likewise, could only dream of being good enough to choke. Instead, in the opening rounds, they were reeled in by Bangladesh, briskly knocked on the head by New Zealand, and used as chum to whet Australia's appetite. South Africa's exit from the West Indies wasn't a choke. It was a mercy killing.

Even the nadir of 2003 doesn't quite qualify. Those who called for Pollock's head as Choker-in-Chief had forgotten why they were so shocked and angry in the first place: South Africa had it in the bag. Mark Boucher had had a winning total relayed to him and had duly put Muttiah Muralitharan into the stands for six, and then declined what he thought was an unneeded single. It was a staggeringly stupid mistake by the team, but being bad at arithmetic is not the same as choking on a cricket field.

Perhaps surprisingly, the people who have taken most eagerly to the choker tag are South African fans. There are good reasons for this. We are not a particularly literate country, and the very few newspapers we do read have figured out that we like our information reduced to the smallest, shoutiest chunks possible. Even now, young subeditors are collecting lists of words that rhyme with "choke" so that their headline is ready to roll the moment the Proteas look like losing a game. If our papers were allowed to run headlines saying "Proteas Are Stinky Poo-Faces" they would, but until then, choking is the preferred currency of hyperbole.

But I think we cling to the word for a more sophisticated reason, too. With its allusions to psychology and history it feels solidly scientific. It is an explanation; a truth revealed. And this is particularly appealing for us South Africans who have watched our team through six World Cups, hoping to see some kind of logical progression but instead have seen something inexplicable. There have been good games and bad games, conventional periods of waxing and waning, but always something has flickered on the periphery; a mad energy; pure, arbitrary chaos. It is an energy that refuses to be directed towards the team's goals but rather lies in wait until a moment when chaos and confusion can rule, and the great irony is that it afflicts one of the most organised and least flighty teams in the world.

The 2007 team was not good enough to choke. They were reeled in by Bangladesh, knocked over by New Zealand, and used as chum to whet Australia's appetite

It even refuses to obey the conventional choking narrative, popping up in random games to sow arbitrary destruction. South Africa's accusers point to famous losses in the knockout phase of World Cups but they overlook other bizarre collapses, like the Proteas imploding to 40 for 6 against Zimbabwe in 1999 or losing to West Indies in the opening game of the 2003 tournament, slumping from 104 for 2 to 160 for 6, then recovering, getting within reach, and falling three runs short.

That chaotic energy has been there right from the start. In their tournament debut, seven years before "choke" was a misquoted twinkle in Waugh's eye, chaos seemed to buzz around them, whether it was the umpire not hearing Geoff Marsh's fat nick off their very first delivery, Jonty Rhodes flying improbably through the air against Pakistan, or that Sydney scoreboard flashing up apparently arbitrary, impossible numbers like a malfunctioning slot machine. And in the end, South Africa were remembered not for how they played in the tournament but for how they left it. That kind of birth - magical chaos, then an exit - etches deep marks on a country's sporting psyche.

The third reason we like the choker label so much is, however, less flattering. We who play and watch and write about cricket tend, on the whole, to resist placing the sport in a broader, more complex South African context. Many of us demand that politics be kept out of sport, not understanding that politics has shaped every facet of the game, from the team's psychology to the price of tickets at the gate. We tell ourselves that Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu came to Tests in the 1990s because they wanted to see a bit of cricket, not because they were using the sport as a powerful tool of reconciliation in a country still profoundly segregated along race and class lines. We insist that sport should be an escape from the cares of the world, even as we project so many of our worldly hopes and anxieties onto it.

Did South Africa choke in 1999 or did they overachieve thanks to Lance Klusener?

Did South Africa choke in 1999 or did they overachieve thanks to Lance Klusener? © Getty Images

In this atmosphere, where it is frowned upon to make connections between cricket and the world beyond the boundary, the idea of the choke becomes a useful tool because it absolves you of having to question anything. It acts as a kind of scapegoat, an event onto which we can heap our collective flaws and write them off as an aberration. A choke implies that everything was fine, and then some inexplicable, one-off disaster struck, and that once the dust settles everything will return to normal. What is normal? Well, how it was before. You know. Normal. Now stop being so thinky.

South Africa has a long history of using sport to paint a picture of a false normal. "No normal sport in an abnormal society" demanded the anti-apartheid posters, recognising the power that sport has to convince the world that everything is peachy. Hitler did in 1936. Russia and Qatar will be doing it soon. The apartheid regime did it, importing a rebel West Indian team in the early 1980s to show the world that some of its best friends were black.

Our new dispensation has rejected much of that past, but it too has understood the power of bread and games, and has kept those old nationalistic tropes in place. Sport remains a crude but potent symbol of national identity in South Africa, especially now as a mood of gloom and anxiety settles over the country's politics. We celebrate it with the aesthetics of ancient Rome, of fascist states, of Pax Americana. Our players are not mates who hit a ball with a plank. They are gladiators, gunslingers, Special Forces who keep us safe at night. They stand shoulder to shoulder in print advertisements, their faces smudged with grit (or is it night camouflage, or dried blood?) as if they have just returned from patrol. On television they drone stilted Pacino-esque monologues about pride and honour. They are always wrapped in flags and insignias. They move in slow motion, gazing at a distant horizon.

South Africans would not have managed something like the "Put out your bats" gesture because sport has become divorced from our lived reality

Australia's reaction to the death of Phillip Hughes put this into stark relief for me. If a beloved young South African had died under identical circumstances the response would have been a nationalistic pantomime, with flags at half-mast and speeches by the sports minister. We would certainly not have managed something like the "Put out your bats" gesture because sport is too important in South Africa and has become divorced from our lived reality. That gesture was so moving because those worn, loved bats leaning against the walls of so many houses emphasised that, in Australia, cricket is a part of a bigger life. You play hard but then you go home to what's really important. South Africans are not there yet.

When sport becomes a tool of nationalism, fans' expectations become as insane as nationalism itself. The team becomes unconsciously linked to the functioning of the state. Successes stop being a pleasant bonbon and start becoming as essential as keeping water in the taps. Winning becomes a basic minimum requirement, like collecting taxes or filling potholes.

It seems more than coincidental that South Africa's two outright chokes, in 1996 and 2011, happened a year after the country had experienced euphoric nationalistic highs. The first was the 1995 rugby World Cup, a nationwide exultation so inspiring that Hollywood turned it into a feel-good flick. The second was the 2010 FIFA World Cup, a brief spring of hope and bonhomie in a country becoming increasingly anxious about poverty and misrule. Perhaps South Africa, with an already complicated relationship with winning, was simply too desperate for its own fairy tale, and winning became too important. The trouble is, you can't plan a fairy tale. They are ruled by magic, and South Africa was all magicked out...

Have South Africa become familiar enough with failure to the point where it no longer frightens them?

Have South Africa become familiar enough with failure to the point where it no longer frightens them? © AFP

It would be easy to write off the Proteas as they close the circle and return to Australia and New Zealand, where their World Cup history began. It would certainly scratch a cynical itch to predict another semi-final travesty. But perhaps that schadenfreude doesn't come from a place of true cynicism. Perhaps dismissing the Proteas as chokers is how South Africans prepare for disappointment, and if we're guarding against disappointment it implies that we are harbouring a closely held, barely acknowledged hope. I know I have some hope. And here's why.

I once ghost-wrote the autobiography of a young man who was worth many millions of dollars. In our first meeting he heaped praise on various mentors and business partners he had met as an adult, but he insisted the secret of his success lay in his childhood. I pricked up my ears. What treasure had he been given as a boy? A large trust fund? A private education at an elite college? The answer surprised me: he had failed. A lot. First in primary school, then in high school. Twice. Three times. He spoke of these academic disasters with deep affection, and soon I realised why: by failing repeatedly, and picking himself each time, he had lost his fear of failure.

The shark in Jaws is scary only while it remains unseen. The moment that big rubber robot rears up onto the boat, it becomes knowable and banal. Failure had become familiar to my tycoon, and so, free of its fear, he took enormous risks with enormous amounts of money and won more than he lost. For him failure was simply a chance to try again, and to do better the next time.

Have the Proteas reached that point? Have they become familiar enough with failure to see its façade of terror fall away? Perhaps it won't happen in this World Cup, but I suspect that soon the c-word will lose its hold over their imaginations. It will annoy them, anger them, perhaps even depress them. But soon it will no longer frighten them. I hope that moment arrives in the 2015 World Cup.

Certainly the current ODI team is mediocre enough to be safe from a true choke. But we South Africans have lived in hope, on hope, for so long that I'm sure we can huddle closer together at the back of the cathedral and hope on for a little longer. Call it a prayer. Call it self-deluding hocus pocus. But still we hope.

Tom Eaton is a columnist, screenwriter and novelist from Cape Town

 

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LOGIN TO POST YOUR COMMENTS

  • POSTED BY Manoj on | February 23, 2015, 19:25 GMT

    The SA team are like a military team. Seems like they do not play for fun. They are one of the disciplined side without any antics attached to any of the players. They need to have a carefree approach and the individuals need to show some emotions.

  • POSTED BY Michael on | February 23, 2015, 18:35 GMT

    That is a really long winded article. The issue can be summed up in these stats: In 6 world cups, SA have reached the knockout stage 5 times and failed at the very first hurdle each time. Often they have cruised to the knockouts as one of the top teams and then failed to beat England in 1992, West Indies in 1996, Australia in 1999, Australia again in 2007 and NZ in 2011.

  • POSTED BY Android on | February 8, 2015, 12:23 GMT

    SA r no more chokers...coz kallis is no more is the team..there failures hav been coz of him in knockouts.. no doubt in 1999 he scored a fifty bt at wat strike rate?then in 2011 he again swallowed alot of deliveries to leave SA in stress... leaving alot to be done by others both the times they were chasing in 2007 too when he was needed to score big he played like a kid and got out to mcgrath...poor he.. they hav good squad...better than anyone else...beat top 5 in the world with amla,duplesis,AB,De kokn duminy... this one belongs to SA...

  • POSTED BY Scott on | February 8, 2015, 1:45 GMT

    After trying valiantly to dispel the 'choker' tag, we then get to the last paragraph in which you call the current team 'mediocre'. Far from it I and many others including the players would have thought. Sounds like your giving them justification to fail (choke) on the big stage again because they are just a 'mediocre' side. Come on mate no ones buying that

  • POSTED BY Ross on | February 7, 2015, 23:15 GMT

    @UDAY ON: Check out Alison's Tea Break video interview of Pollock. The maths mixup was not the player's fault. They didn't even have a copy of the targets. They were just told to reach a score, which is why Boucher blocked the last ball.

  • POSTED BY Android on | February 7, 2015, 22:43 GMT

    Tom, you seem to have choked on the chip on your shoulder....

  • POSTED BY Ned on | February 7, 2015, 18:40 GMT

    Nice attempt to bury the c-word but it doesn't wash. It's nothing to do with losing as the best team, it's about crumbling under pressure. Plenty of poor and mediocre teams can choke when they get into strong positions - South Africa are noted for being a (generally) very fine team that also like to choke (see the telling stats from Kartik Gada in the comments).

    And if the current S. African side is mediocre, can we Englishmen lay claim to the lofty heights of merely very, very poor?

  • POSTED BY Deepanjan on | February 7, 2015, 17:00 GMT

    I agree with the aspect of this article which says that history and lore are always written by victors who love a good story, until it's reinforced enough to become a supposed truth. But the justifications don't fly. So 1996, and 2007 were bonafide chokes? But trying to justify inability to handle knockout encounter, by stating they had no business being there, is like saying Australia had no business winning the cup, because Pakistan was a better team. Trying to put South Africa as a mediocre unit for 2015, is just as laughable, because they are much stronger than most, as were they in 2011. And it won't be anyone else's folly that they're not carrying a psychologist.

  • POSTED BY Santanu on | February 7, 2015, 14:42 GMT

    Remember the Tri-series Titan cup in 1996 featuring India, Australia and South Africa? South Africa looked invincible in all their six group league matches. They just thrashed India and Australia! Then what happened in the final? India scored a modest 220 and while chasing that, South Africa was reduced to 90 odd runs for 8! Captain Cronje's ears were as red as tomatoes. Finally a late order partnership made them reach 180 odds and saved them from shame. India, who were nowhere near South Africa in the whole tri-series, won the Titan cup! I think that was the day one started feeling that South Africa are chokers!

  • POSTED BY Deepan on | February 7, 2015, 14:37 GMT

    Brilliant Piece. I have never believed in the Chokers tag. Am also heart-broken as I was about to write on it and therefore found this gem. I was nowhere near the entire panorama of South African life that you have so wonderfully painted. I would still try despite being demoralized by this brilliance. As I take heart from the fact that failure is great, the fear of failure is crap. SA has done great things since their re-entry. You don't win a Test Series against Australia in Australia when they were the real Australia. India for years was an impregnable fortress. Even at their peak Australia and Steve Waugh conquered all but left India annihilated in 1998 and then riding a great tide were frustrated by the magic at Eden Gardens in 2001. They won when India was not that India. SA is the only team to have cooked India in their own den in 2000. They have won a Test in every tour and without a single decent spinner. Your piece proves: What do they know of cricket who only cricket know.

  • POSTED BY Krupa on | February 7, 2015, 13:34 GMT

    I do not agree. They have one of the best win/loss records in the league phase of world cups. Somehow they never win any knockout game. They have such a great team on paper and played to the billing in league stages, what happens in knockouts?

    Also there are several teams that are mediocre but no one labels them chokers, because they are consistently mediocre.

  • POSTED BY Rod on | February 7, 2015, 12:36 GMT

    Phew Tom... how about a caveat for SA readers to make sure that they are on the couch when they read about their national psyche! As a compatriot I am entitled to this gripe, however you do make some good points re the over or inappropriate use of the C-word. From what I read on this particular site, the people who seem most attached to the term actually have to use it in an attempt rationalise how their own underwhelming performers (Team X) are going to overcome one of the better teams, in this instance SA.

    So SA will choke, NZ and Aus will fluff it due to pressure of the playing at home (this can't possibly be termed choking though because only one team can do that), thus logically leaving Team X as winners. Now who could Team X be?

  • POSTED BY Uday on | February 7, 2015, 12:08 GMT

    To call SA's 1999 performance over achievement because of Lance's performance is not justified. Every team would have star performer in the tournament and lance was SA's man. They definitely choked up in the semis, as it was a clear case of Lance and Donald not able to handle the pressure/emotions towards the end! And does the author really believe 2003 incident was a simple arithmetic mistake? Isn't it because of a highly tensed Pollock? Wouldn't he do the arithmetic right if he was normal?

    This article seems like a desperate attempt from a south african to let go the C word! Calling the current SA team mediocre says it all! This SA team is definitely one of the strongest in the tournament, and every body agrees to it! I think the author is setting up for a defence if SA has a similar exit again!

  • POSTED BY R on | February 7, 2015, 10:35 GMT

    Completely agreed that "choke" is an incorrect way of putting things but to say that they overachieved in 1999 is a joke... Yes, Klusener had a terrific tournament (possibly the best World Cup anyone has ever had) but others played quite well...

    The batting looked shaky but let's be honest, batting in England isn't easy and these guys did better than the rest... Gibbs was brilliant (specially in the later half), Kallis was very consistent (he had 4 50+ scores including one in the semis) and the others chipped in from time to time!!!

    The bowlers were all excellent... Donald was menacing, Pollock was frugal as ever (I think his economy rate was less 2 in 2 or 3 matches) and Kallis shouldered the responsibility of opening the bowling at times!!!

    They were surely the best team in 1999 by some distance... Australia won because of a lucky innings by Steve Waugh and Warne's genius in the KO games!!!

  • POSTED BY Mike on | February 7, 2015, 10:02 GMT

    Excellent article. The present side lacks the middle-order power and closing over discipline of the Aussies and are not really favourites for this tournament. A win would be good, but against the odds. A loss to a respectable opponent would not be a choke but simply the inevitable consequence of a team with some superstars, but too great a weight of mediocrity in the middle ranks to be truly favourites.

  • POSTED BY Francis Cappellazzo on | February 7, 2015, 9:41 GMT

    South Africa team mediocre?.... This is one of the strongest sides they've ever fielded, the author had me until that last paragraph

  • POSTED BY Shabbir Zaidi on | February 7, 2015, 8:30 GMT

    After reading this article it feels like SA will win the WC this time around!! I hope not!! There are always some attractions of any event or site and of WC's one attraction is SA being choker !! Actually its a hope of fans like me from Pakistan who want their team to win despite knowing they lack quality but SA has "CHOKED" in the past so we hope that may they do it again. Keeping our fingers crossed and it has happened too!! So i am hoping that again when Pakistan clashes with SA in knockout round hopefully SA will choke once again!!

  • POSTED BY Kartik Gada on | February 7, 2015, 7:40 GMT

    From 1992-present, South Africa have the best ODI win/loss ratio of any team, including Australia. Yet, they have never gotten past the WC semifinal in 6 attempts.

    Meanwhile, during the same period, Sri Lanka and/or New Zealand have often gone further than expected. At least one of the two has always made the semi-final since 1992, and Sri Lanka won the cup once (1996) and were runners up twice (2007 and 2011). Even though both NZ and SL routinely are trashed by South Africa outside of world cups.

    South Africa lose very few ODIs, but the ones they lose tend to be important ones.

  • POSTED BY rob on | February 7, 2015, 7:23 GMT

    I've never subscribed to the choker theory. It sounds like a convenient cop out to me. Why did SA lose to NZ? Oh, they choked. ..Rubbish. How about they were outplayed on the night? .. is there any possibility the players on the other team may have been better? .. Never. They must have choked. .. yeah, right.