Russell Domingo realises that he is faced with a problem that Gary Kirsten, Corrie van Zyl, Mickey Arthur, Eric Simons and Bob Woolmer have all tried to solve and failed.
For over a decade now, South Africa has entered and exited major cricket tournaments knowing all along, agonisingly, that it had the team to win the whole thing. And so it is that Domingo attempts to go where none of his predecessors have, to take a team that has previously seemed convinced of its own fallibility — a side eloquently described by an Australian news website this week as the game’s “most celebrated chokers” — to cricket’s highest summit.
Under Kirsten, South Africa was convinced that after ignoring and denying an inexplicable issue, it had finally confronted and dealt with it. In the semifinals of the 2013 Champions Trophy, South Africa fell at the hands of England in what seemed more a case of ineptitude than anything else, but Kirsten publicly declared that his team had choked. “A dark mist”, he called it, “hanging over South African cricket in knock-out events.”
Make peace with the past Domingo comes across as a confident man and his approach, it would appear, is to embrace the past and make peace with it. To him, being the best team at the tournament is the simplest way to win it. The last few months of preparation have all been geared towards fighting South Africa’s greatest enemy in knock-out matches: pressure.
“In a way, every series we have played, there has been a mention of the World Cup coming up in a few months time,” Domingo said as his charges went through their training routines at the MCG.
“And (we’ve been) trying to put ourselves under pressure in every game we have played. Whether it’s Zimbabwe in Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka in Sri Lanka, or Pakistan in Dubai, there’s always been a subtle mention of the World Cup pressures and how this game is almost as important as playing the World Cup and trying to put ourselves in those situations.
“I remember we were 3-1 up in the series against Pakistan and the talk was about approaching the last game as if it was a World Cup quarterfinal, a must-win. Fortunately, we won it; hopefully we have learnt the lessons from it.”
Compensating Domingo believes that great physical skill will compensate for any (real or imagined) mental weakness. Here, nobody can dispute South Africa’s competence as a group of cricketers. And this is what he has been trying to impress on his team. There is no need, in his eyes, for a psychologist. (The players climbed a mountain with Mike Horn ahead of the Champions Trophy and still lost.)
“I don’t think we have had a psychologist with us for the last 8-9 months,” he said. “I wouldn’t say we have had a psychologist travelling with us all the time. I don’t know if Paddy Upton is a psychologist; he is more of a life coach.
Focus on the skills “I’d like our team to focus very much on their skills. I am firm believer that if you get your skills right, you can get yourself into a mentally good space — the attitude and the pressure, and not the other way round. I don’t think you can be mentally strong and have bad skills. You’ve got to have good skills which allow you to be mentally strong to perform under pressure and that’s the type of focus we have put on.
“We have worked really hard on our skills and with the bat, with the ball, in the field. And if we do it continuously well in pressure situations or in practice situations, hopefully you can get it right in high-pressure moments in game time.”
Sunday’s Group B fixture with India may not hold critical value in theory. But it is a step for South Africa towards assuring itself that it has a team capable of winning the World Cup. That is all Domingo cares about.