SECOND-RANKED South Africa is the only African team to make it to the semi-finals at the 2023 Cricket World Cup. After being banished from the international game in 1970 because of apartheid policies, the country began playing in the tournament in 1992 once democracy was on the cards. Since then South Africa have been semi-finalists often. But what are their chances of winning in 2023 and how does the country’s history live on today? We asked cricket expert Mogammad Sharhidd Taliep five questions.
How have South Africa performed in 2023?
South Africa have performed admirably. Of the eight cricket world cups since 1992, they have reached the semi-finals in four, but have never proceeded to the finals. They “choked” in the crucial stages of their matches and were labelled “chokers”. This is their ninth cup and they are semi-finalists for the fifth time.
What is choking?
Choking is when highly motivated and skilled players deliver sub-optimal (less than ideal) performances when subjected to pressure. Numerous theories have been proposed, but it’s still unclear why this happens.
“Drive theories” suggest that players may increase their arousal or drive to excel under pressure. However, an excessive or non-optimal state of arousal caused by anxiety can disrupt attention, resulting in poor performance.
Then there are the “attentional theories” rooted in the idea that the brain can only allocate a limited amount of resources to paying attention. Anxiety about a match competes with and disrupts the attention required to execute routine tasks.
Consider the 1999 World Cup semi-final against Australia, where Lance Klusener and Allan Donald were run out, leading to South Africa’s loss. South Africa needed just one run to win off four balls with one wicket in hand and a batsman like Klusener would typically secure that run. The immense pressure resulted in them choking at the most crucial part of the match. A similar situation unfolded in the 2015 World Cup semi-final against New Zealand.
But labelling South Africa as the only team that chokes in cricket world cups is unfair. Since 1992, England, despite winning in 2019, had only reached the semi-finals once before that. And their performance this year displayed several instances of underperforming on the big stage. New Zealand, who played in six of the eight World Cup semi-finals since 1992, have never won the tournament.
What must South Africa do to win?
The opposite of choking is to possess “big match temperament”. This is when an individual or team rises to the occasion of a significant match or critical moment. The player takes ownership and often performs beyond expectations. South Africa needs to exhibit big match temperament to secure a World Cup title.
This involves meticulous planning, flawless execution, applying consistent pressure and staying one step ahead. Calmness must prevail in height-of-pressure moments, fostering belief in themselves and their preparation. Two quotes from South African Rugby World Cup flyhalf Handré Pollard sum up the mindset needed in those crucial moments:
In those moments you trust your process and the hours you’ve put in.
That is what you live for.
In my view, when South African cricketers relish these pressure moments, triumph awaits.
Transformation is a heated issue – how has it shaped the 2023 team?
Transformation in South African sports is a government goal. The Transformation Charter defines it as:
Increased access and opportunities for all South Africans, including women, persons with disabilities, youth, children and the elderly to sport and recreation opportunities; the socio-economic benefits of sport are harnessed; and the constitutional right to sport is recognised.
The transformation of the national cricket team is just a small part of the agenda, but it receives the most media attention. Despite negative publicity, often around the target or quota system, South Africa’s national team has continued to perform well. A series of research papers show that transformation has generally changed the face of South African cricket without compromising performance at a senior and junior provincial level. South Africa has come a long way since 1992 when Omar Henry was the only Cricket World Cup squad member who wasn’t white.
Although there are barriers for the progression of cricketers and the country is still far away from truly transforming the sport, a lot of work has been done by Cricket South Africa at all levels. These successes are often not publicised. For example, about 60 Hub and Regional Performance Centres have been established across the country. These academy-like programmes aim to develop talent from previously disadvantaged communities by providing coaching, mentorship, transport, high level matches and opportunities.
What does it take to make the national team?
I’ll answer that by highlighting eight key factors that shape the pathway to becoming an elite player:
- Parental support and mentorship: Parents are the first contact for budding cricketers. It’s essential to educate parents on how to effectively support and nurture their children’s talent.
- Early diversification: Recent analysis suggests that world-class athletes engage in a range of physical and sport activities during their early years. This helps develop different muscle groups, movement patterns and anticipation skills. It prevents boredom and reduces the risk of overuse injuries. So playing many different kinds of sports is a benefit.
- Dedicated training: It’s important to have the appropriate training. Research indicates that, by the age of 15, elite-level cricket batters had accumulated about 2,000 hours of structured, coach-led training. This is aside from playing in informal settings.
- Intrinsic development: Players should have the freedom to develop naturally and this should be emphasised over rigid coaching instructions. Allowing individual styles and techniques to evolve encourages unique talents in both batting and bowling. It makes players less prone to choking.
- Fast bowlers’ preservation: Shoulder and back injuries are common among young fast bowlers. They should prioritise preserving their bodies and perfecting their variations rather than consistently bowling at maximum speed. Especially during their growing years.
- Physical conditioning and resistance training: Often overlooked at the junior level, strength or weight training from an early age promotes well-rounded physical development.
- Mental toughness: Mental toughness and especially resilience have been found to be among the most important psychological skills of elite players. The ability to bounce back from disappointments and poor performances through learning and adjusting techniques and strategies is vital.
- Enjoyment and passion: Above all, both the child and the parent should find joy in the sport and foster a genuine love for playing.