After reading my previous postings on choking, Ian asked: ‘With the Cricket World Cup coming up this month, I would be interested to hear your opinions on whether the South African cricket team would be able to overcome their self-fulfilling prophecy (of choking) and go on to win the event’.
On a fundamental level, the team is untested.
Before a team enters a major world event, it needs to have established key combinations that have been proved to be successful (this helps to minimize the uncertainty and unpredictability of any situation that it may encounter). Individual players need to have a clear idea about their roles in the team. But more importantly, these roles need to have been tested and experimented with under pressured conditions before the team arrives at the event. This has not occurred. So the team has not fully had the opportunity to get to know itself (and its responses) to the variety of situations that are likely to unfold on the field.
There are some technical factors that need to be considered before even looking at the complexity around the psychology of choking:
1. The batting seems vulnerable; especially in the middle lower order. Given this, the batting may be susceptible to collapses. Further, being able to dominate the bowling in the middle and latter stages of an innings will be under question.
2. There are a number of untested, inexperienced batsmen who will be expected to help set competitive scores or to chase down challenging targets, in foreign sub-continent conditions, where pace and bounce of ball may tax every bit of their competence.
3. Our two most effective bowlers, Steyn and Morkel, may be neutralised on the slow, low wickets.
4. Our inexperienced support seam bowlers may be exposed; and not be able to sustain the necessary ongoing pressure on the opposition batsmen.
5. The conditions usually favour spin bowling. Our spin bowlers will be able to utilise these conditions only if they have mastered their own trade of spin bowling – anything short of excellent line and length will be punished by batsmen who are comfortable and confident in conditions that favour spin.
6. In recent tournaments and test series, our two most experienced players, Smith and Kallis, have been susceptible to injury and one cannot discount the possibility that they may not last the distance.
There are many unanswered questions concerning the expertise of the present SA cricket team. There will be no place to hide during the competition. The pressures of competition will expose the limitations of any team. To win a World Cup, all of one’s limitations need to have been addressed and experimented with. That process usually takes a couple of years as the team prepares for the major event.
The players will be expected to adjust quickly to the conditions on the sub-continent. More importantly, they will need to back this up with past experiences that can support them when dealing with challenging emotional situations during a match. It is in this arena that the team has no detailed knowledge of itself.
Choking is usually a phenomenon that a confident, settled, experienced and especially competent team encounters when it loses a match (or competition) when everything points to them having all the necessary abilities to have secured a victory. While the concern of choking may be lingering in the recesses of the team’s psyche; there are too many other technical, tactical and competency factors that need to be addressed which may stand in their way of winning the competition.
Winning the tournament will be akin to travelling up Leba Pass, in Southern Angola – a long and winding uphill journey that will challenge any team’s capabilities to the hilt. A team will need to be fully prepared and aware of exactly how it functions in the ‘heat of battle’, in conditions that may be hostile, in order to navigate itself to the endpoint of eventually lifting the trophy.