Nirmal Shekar

Choking? You must be joking!

The only thing that is worse than being talented and unsuccessful is being talented and unsuccessful every which way, again and again, and yet again. Until Wednesday night at Sydney, the South African cricketers were best known for their astounding inventiveness in finding novel ways to lose crucial World Cup matches.



They had never waited to be knocked out of the quadrennial showpiece of the 50-overs game. They always seemed to have come prepared to knock themselves out, one way or the other.



The history of sport would be poorer – and much less dramatic and compelling – without the harrowing tales of its famous high-profile chokers. But then, the South African cricketers appeared to infuse throbbing new life into the word choking even as they turned it into an art-form.



In the 1999 World Cup, Herschelle Gibbs dropped Steve Waugh when he was on 56 – Waugh went on to make a match-winning century – and the famous put-down “You just dropped the World Cup, mate’’ became part of cricketing folklore. It is another matter that Waugh never said that.



In his book Out of my Comfort Zone, Waugh writes that he said, ``I hope you realise that you have just lost the game for your team.’’



Then again, you know how reputations, good and bad, are built on in the world of sport. What is more, in the same World Cup, there was a farcical run out incident involving Lance Klusener and Allan Donald, also against Australia in the semifinal.



Tragi-comedy, the Duckworth​-Lewis rain rule, infantile miscalculation of runs needed to win, the weather…you name it and South Africa has been left cursing its fate after finding itself at the wrong end of the deal, time and time again.

In the event, when I told a friend yesterday that 134 was going to be a walk in the park for A.B. de Villiers’s men against Sri Lanka in the World Cup quarterfinals — prompting him to reel off instances in the past when the Proteas had imploded amidst avalanching anxiety, their confidence collapsing like a soap bubble — this columnist had to acknowledge that the game wasn’t over until it was over.



In the end, of course, de Villiers’s team shook a troop of monkeys off their backs as they became the first team to race into the semifinals.



“Defeat has a dignity which noisy victory does not deserve,” wrote Jorge Luis Borges, and for as long as they have been back in the cricketing fold, the South Africans have taken that to be gospel truth.



Choking seemed the solitary over-arching theme of their campaigns at the ICC events and few experts might have believed that de Villiers’s gifted men would muster the courage to see past the emotive rubble of the past.



“[People] cognize and interpret information to fit what they already believe,’’ wrote the American social psychologist Leon Festinger, the man who made famous the phrase “cognitive dissonance.’’



But the awesome authority with which South Africa dismissed Sri Lanka and coasted home on Wednesday was enough to at once drive all the ghosts of the past into oblivion and hammer a resounding warning to the remaining contenders.



If the brutal, gladiatorial arena of sport can hold a mirror to the palette of human experience, then the image is seldom clearer than when the mighty are left licking their wounds – and especially so when the wounds happen to be self-inflicted.



The bigger the name, the easier it is to recall the choke. The Australian golfer Greg Norman made it a habit. Tennis has seen the likes of Jana Novotna and Mary Pierce sobbing in the open after letting go of winnings leads.



“Look we haven’t won a tournament yet, we haven’t won a knock-out game yet, but it is about facing up and winning,’’ Graeme Smith, the former South African captain, said in a recent interview with​ ESPNcricinfo.

​​Now that his former team-mates have taken the first big step in shrugging off the tag like a snake peeling off its scales, Smith won’t be alone if he were to believe that South Africa’s big moment has arrived at last, and de Villiers and his men are ready to grasp it as firmly as possible.

“There is an infinite amount of hope – but not for us,’’ wrote Franz Kafka, famously known as “the poet of his own disorder.’’



If the South African cricketers can now say, with their heads held high, that they are no longer the authors of their own despairing destiny, then the word 'choke' can no longer be used as a trope to explain away the team’s failures when push comes to shove in the big events.​


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