In the final moments of the South Africa vs Pakistan match — easily this World Cup’s most riveting duel — the world saw some unusual cricketing sights. Pakistan were cornered, they did play like tigers but ended up being caged. South Africa kept their nerves, didn’t panic and won a close World Cup game.
There was one more significant sight that would give South Africa hope of ending their agonising wait for the long-suffering nation. The two last men standing – Keshav Maharaj and Tabraiz Shamsi – constantly spoke to each other during that tense heart-stopping match-winning 11-run stand. Like always, South Africa is a team of sparkling talent but this time Temba Bavuma’s men are also talking.
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Don’t they talk in tense situations? Is minding one’s own business a debilitating frailty in team sports? Yes, according to an interesting inquest of South African cricket by writer Luke Alfred in his well-researched book ‘Art of Losing – Why the Proteas choke at the cricket World Cup’.
The book has a telling quote by Clinton Gahwiler, a psychologist with South Africa’s 2003 World Cup squad, that attempts to answer world cricket’s most asked questions. “I’ve always sensed in general that South African sporting teams don’t talk enough, especially with that kind of macho culture that’s so prevalent in our sport,’ he says.
As can be expected, the book puts on stand Lance Klusener and Allan Donald, the men on the central square during South Africa’s most-famous World Cup meltdown – the final ball heart-break in 1999 when South Africa dramatically snatched defeat from the tightly clenched jaws of victory against Australia.
Writer Alfred recommends to re-run the tapes to watch the limited exchanges between Klusener and Donald. “The two batsmen had spoken when Donald walked to the wicket … But they failed to have that calming, necessary chat when it was most needed … Klusener was so locked into the idea of winning the match that he was unable to step out of himself … Such was his desire … that Donald was, for all intents and purposes, invisible, a bit player in Klusener’s drama in which he was the hero rather than a teammate or colleague.”
In the years to come, Edgbaston would become a taboo subject in South Africa. No one spoke about it. The 1999 coach and captain – Bob Woolmer and Hansie Cronje – were not asked to prepare a report. There was no diagnosis of a mysterious panic attack. In the subsequent World Cups worse was to follow.
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2003: SA chase D/L target. Mark Boucher gets confused. He didn’t know they needed to go past that target, score that extra run. The dressing room fails to convey the message. 12th man Nicky Boje tries to enter the field in the dying minutes, umpire Steve Bucknor shoos him away. Game tied, South Africa eliminated at home.
2011: Chasing 222, SA were 108/2. 40 minutes of madness follows. They were 172 all out. Skipper Graeme Smith said, “If we’d just hung in there until that change of ball … we’d have got over the line.” Was it conveyed? Coach Van Zyl would later say, “I blame myself for being too passive.”
2015: This time the blame was on the colour-based quota system, a subject that’s spoken in hushed tones in post-apartheid South Africa. In the semi-final, white cricketer Kyle Abbott, the team’s best bowler at the tournament, is left out. In comes the reluctant coloured cricketer Vernon Philander. “They were clearly not open and honest with me and Kyle. There were things happening behind closed doors,” Philander would tell an Afrikaans weekly. SA lost a tight game where Kiwi batsman Grant Elliott played the knock of his life. Abbot was sorely missed.
Once again it was the case of the team that doesn’t talk, doesn’t win.
Over the years, World Cups for South Africa have been about adding monkeys on their back and albatrosses around their neck. This time it looks different.
There is an audible chatter around Bavuma’s team. Before the World Cup, the Proteas have had four to five camps. The effervescent and ever-smiling Shamsi, speaking to Cricbuzz, joked that the dark circles around his eyes were not natural but were signs of the hard work put in and lack of sleep.
Communication too has been on the agenda. “Everyone is open to be themselves. Over the last week or so we’ve got to interact with the new guys, and they’ve opened up and they feel comfortable,” he would say.
Long and casual conversations was what made Clive Lloyd’s team The Greatest. After the day’s play, the team would often order Chinese takeaways, something that the entire team loved. In his autobiography, Lloyd would paint a picture that is certain to get romantics of the game teary-eyed with nostalgia. “I would get a meal for 17 people and there’d be a hundred cartons on the table because they liked their food so much. We ate, laughed and spent the whole night talking cricket,” he wrote.
Bavuma isn’t Lloyd, nor is South Africa the West Indies of yore. But there is hope. The present SA captain isn’t afraid of tough conversations. The first-ever full-time South African black captain, might not have a booming voice but his words have substance. During the T20 World Cup in 2021 when his old mate and team’s senior star Quinton de Kock didn’t take a knee and didn’t publicly show his solidarity to the BLM movement, outrage would rain down on the team and Bavuma. But he didn’t flinch or skirt the issue.
He would make a statement that would have made the founding fathers of new South Africa proud. “My beliefs are shaped by my own experience and so is the other person’s. If there is a disagreement in terms of beliefs, in terms of views, that’s why we have those hard conversations.
Through those conversations, we will be able to get the comfort to accept the other person’s decision. I can’t force anyone to see things the way I do, neither can they force me to.”
But on the field, South Africans need to refine their conversations. In that very game that Shamsi and Maharaj talked the walk and walked the talk, South Africa almost blew it, like in the past. Needing 21 runs in about 10 overs, Aiden Markram was out trying to slog the leggie Usama Mir. There were shades of Klusener in him as at the non-striker’s end was “a bit player in a drama in which he was the hero rather than a teammate or colleague.”
Kolkata has lots of options, Bavuma needs to order takeaway Chinese for his team before the India game.
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