Naturally, one would say: “yes, of course they are” Or even: “they have been choking for the past 18-odd years”. Personally, I despise using this word, but merely classifying the Proteas losing in any game as a choke annoys me. You cannot lose a match you were never going to win. For many people whom I’ve had the pleasure of interacting with on Twitter, a common understanding of the word ‘choking’ means to be in a winning positing in a match, but you lose after being inches away from victory. A perfect example is the chance South Africa had in the 1999 World Cup against Australia to advance to the final. However, a disaster of a run out between Lance Klusener and Allan Donald saw the last South African wicket fall resulting in the match ending in a draw. Australia advanced ahead of South Africa because of a higher net run-rate.
Heartbreaking? Extremely. But this is not the only example of choking the Proteas have had in their time playing against international teams.
They recently played a three-match ODI series against England in which they lost 2-1: the first ODI series loss since the end of 2015 when they managed to beat India 3-2 in their conditions. The team had lost the first match by a heavy 72 runs, placing England a step higher than South Africa. The second ODI was a choke. I recall the commentator in that match stating that it was truly the Proteas’ game to lose. The last over saw them need seven more runs to win. A boundary would have swung things in their favour. Big hitters in Chris Morris and David Miller could not muster up a last dose of economy-raising batting to prevent a series victory for the English. In the end, England won by two runs and won the series.
I am not debating that South Africa don’t let the pressure get to them when it matters and they are in a winning position, but why is the term ‘choking’ only used whenever they lose? Is it because of the numerous chances they have had to get to the final and add more silverware to their cabinet?
Watching highlights of the matches from rain-speckled Champions Trophy this year, there were many teams that choked in games, but it was classified as the underdogs winning, or that the bowling and/or batting were not working together. Looking at the teams in Group A, New Zealand choked against Bangladesh which effectively knocked them out of the tournament. Four early wickets, including the wicket of Tamim Iqbal pushed the Kiwis forward to victory. Thanks to fabulous batting by Mahmudullah and Shakib Al Hasan saw them win by five wickets. Tim Southee, Adam Milne and Trent Boult being the main wicket-takers for their squad, taking three wickets each in the tournament, failed to defend 265 which is an above average score at Sophia Gardens.
Australia, technically, choked twice: first against New Zealand, and second against England. Their first game saw the match being abandoned due to the weather; however it was Australia who were the grateful ones as they were reeling at 53-3 when the floodgates opened with their two openers and Captain Steve Smith out. Although Australia had an unfortunate time in the tournament with two of their games being rained out, and one affected by rain in a losing cause, one would think that they would play their hardest against old foes England to qualify for the semi-finals. After a slightly questionable batting display saw them put up 277-9, it showed how much the Baggy Greens rely on Smith, Warner, and Finch to make runs. After those three went out, Travis Head failed to have a partner take the team over 300 as middle and lower order wickets fell just like the English rain. When they were bowling, Starc and Hazelwood put England on the back foot, claiming three wickets including that of their in-form batsman Joe Root. Eoin Morgan and Ben Stokes managed to chase the Duckworth Lewis score and had England win by 40 runs, having Australia kicked out without winning a single game. The Aussie bowlers failed to capitalise on the three wickets they had early in the innings, especially with the undecided weather lurking around the ground.
Another incident of a team choking came a day after South Africa’s disastrous performance against India, with the winner of the Sri Lanka and Pakistan game going against England in the semi-finals. Sri Lanka had batted first and felt the wrath of the Pakistan bowling attack, as they succumbed to 236. Into the batting innings, the match was really one that could have gone either way, but Sri Lanka were favourites to win as they needed three more wickets to qualify and play against the hosting country. Dropped catches were aplenty as Pakistan managed to chase down 237 with three wickets to spare. Again, the Lankans had failed to work on the chances presented to them in order to win the game, but not one media publication called that losing game a choke.
Why is that dreaded word only applicable to when South Africa loses any game, regardless of whether or not they would have lost? Most newspaper headlines in Australia, England, and pretty much anywhere else in the cricketing world slammed the ‘choker’ tag and ‘South Africa’ in the same line. But the fact of the matter is that South Africa were never going to win against India by their terrible shot selection and senseless run-outs which gave their bowlers nothing to defend against a great Indian batting line up. As I stated earlier: you cannot choke in a match you were never going to win. But I will end with this scenario: if a match between Australia and South Africa were to take place, and the Aussies needing three runs off two balls to win a semi-final. If their batsmen failed to get the three runs needed, lost two wickets in quick succession and lost, what would that be called? We know it would be called choking if it was South Africa batting for a win, but what would be called if it was Australia? Poor play on shot selection? Unfortunate? Mediocre play?
Now I’ll ask again: Is South Africa the only team that chokes?