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


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