The Choke is Overby Telford Vice / 26.03.2011
Do not mess with Atlas Lager. No less than 12 percent of the stuff is pure, unadulterated alcohol. You know you’re in trouble even as the first sip rattles down your throat as uneasily as liquid razorwire. But down it went nonetheless, which made me doubt my South Africanness in the wake of the oesophagus clencher we endured at the Sher-e-Bangla Stadium in Dhaka on Friday. If I was a true son of the soil of Sobukwe, Mandela, Suzman, Corne, Twakkie and Terre’Blanche, shouldn’t I have choked on the challenge of drinking this monstrous beer? Isn’t choking what we Saffers, particularly those of us of a cricketing bent, do best?
Atlas Lager is the colour of the skin around a pair of pale ankles after a day spent walking in and on Dhaka’s dust. Its sweetness is unsettling. It smells like the floor of a bar at 4am. But it is cold and wet and welcoming, and Dhaka is hot and dry and forebodingly congested. Soon, you’re cracking a second to wash away another day spent among the heaving masses. People who swan about in shirts of spearmint green with a protea badge sewn on to the left tit know little of this side of the touring life. For them, the environment of a cricket tour is plush and airconditioned.
Venture into Dhaka’s old city, a place laced with lanes as tiny, dark and crooked as a witch’s fingers and reeking of passed eons, and you may never return. If you do, your memory will be laden with bargains. An Atlas or three will embellish them handsomely, but a fifth could kill them.
It’s a fine balance, which the Proteas now know only too well in another way. They were the most potent team at this World Cup. But too much potency makes you drunk with disrespect and arrogance, and the South Africans were legless in that sense in the days before their match against England in Chennai.
Deserved defeat followed, and the hangover that came after had the desired effect. Graeme Smith’s men played superbly sober cricket against India to win a nerve-jarring match that will live for many mornings after. For the rest of their group games, it was a cocktail hour of one shimmering win after another. That put Smith’s team on top of Group B and carried them into what looked like the easiest of the quarter-finals, against New Zealand in Dhaka. South Africa had smashed Bangladesh to shreds at the same venue six days earlier. Five months ago, Daniel Vettori and his Black Caps came here and were hammered 4-0 in a one-day series. That’s right: by Bangladesh. So I will forgive myself for having asked, loudly and widely and with a swagger, what the hell the mediocrities from middle earth were doing in the last eight of a World Cup …
South Africa sent their A team into the match. All three spinners bristled in the attack, and AB de Villiers’ bad back eased enough to allow him to keep wicket for the first time since the team’s tournament opener against the West Indies in Delhi more than a month previously. That meant Morne van Wyk, who has the heart of a warrior and had done a decent enough job with the gloves but whose batting against spin invites comparisons with a blind man in a Zimmer frame trying to swat flies, was left out. It also meant the Proteas were a batsman lighter than they had been in their last five games. The Black Caps batted as if they had forgotten to tell the rickshaw to wait. They were listless and disinterested, and they dwindled to an insipid total of 221/8. Robin Peterson opened the bowling and did another decent job, Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel bounced back from indifferent first spells to strangle the middle order, and Imran Tahir asked much of his hamstrings when he celebrated taking the important wickets of Jesse Ryder and Ross Taylor. The Kiwis scored 10 runs less than the average at this ground. But, for the first time in the tournament, South Africa did not dismiss their opponents.
However, chasing just 222 to win, with one of the most feared batting line-ups in the game at their disposal, against one of the most modest attacks out there, on an utterly docile pitch that asked nothing more of those who batted on it than that they should play their strokes with level heads and perpendicular bats, surely not a lot of that mattered.
When Smith and Jacques Kallis eased the Proteas to 69/1 in the 15th over, the job looked well on its way to being done. Then Smith smashed the daylights out of a delivery from Jacob Oram. He hit it hard and handsome, and for an instant the ball was a vicious vector, flying flat and fast towards the point boundary. But it would never reach the ropes. Instead, it stopped with a jolt not 20 metres from where Smith had launched it into would-be orbit. Or rather, it was stopped. Jamie How, a substitute fielder, did the sensible thing and caught the damned thing. Smith stood at the crease for a long moment while the New Zealanders celebrated around him, as if he could not believe he had picked out the fielder. It wouldn’t be the last time on the night that the South African captain would be arrested by disbelief.
At this point, we could cut to the chase and say that Smith’s dismissal was the start of a slide that would claim eight wickets for 64 runs in 19.1 overs, and that New Zealand won by 49 runs. Game over. Tough luck. You tried. Thanks for coming. The end. But that would be to indulge in the denial that too often gets in the way of our anger as South Africans. Let’s get it out there, and no pussy-footing about. They choked. Yes, choked. Didn’t hear me the first time? OK, here it comes again, once more with feeling:
ON THIS DAY, MARCH 25, 2001, THE PROTEAS CHOKED.
You knew it in the breathless moments that separated JP Duminy’s dismissal from De Villiers’ in the 28th over. Duminy seemed to have several options at hand to deal with the fourth ball of Nathan McCullum’s fifth over. It didn’t look a particularly threatening delivery as it bounced on the line of middle and off stump and rose gently towards the left-hander. A nice little nudge into the covers, perhaps? Maybe a crisply controlled drive down the ground, a neat nurdle to third man, or even a refusal to hit it anywhere except into the ground in front of him. Instead, Duminy lurched into the ugliest excuse for a cricket shot I have yet seen, and I’ve seen plenty. It was, allegedly, a cut. It was, in fact, an unvarnished flay at a ball that was not there to be flayed. It bowled him.
Two balls later, De Villiers was late in responding to Faf du Plessis’ urgent call for a panicky single. Martin Guptill swooped from midwicket. His throw to the wicketkeeper was swift and accurate enough
to run out the diving De Villiers. Right about then, Cricket South Africa chose to put out this tweet:
“C is for CHAMPIONS! Come on South African supporters! SUPPORT!”
The New Zealanders knew it would be pointless to try and defend the target. They had to bowl South Africa out. That meant aggression. Unlike their rugby playing compatriots, most Kiwi cricketers are not naturally aggressive. But they found some in the wake of De Villiers’ dismissal. The fielders gathered around the 26-year-old, unhardened Du Plessis. Barbed words flew. Du Plessis, a scrumhalf in stature, shoved Kyle Mills, a flanker, at least, out of his face. The rest of the innings is already a blur. It was followed not by the inevitable press conference, but by an epic event that required the stadium to be suddenly shrouded in the sticky cloak of a Dhaka night.
“A fire works display will take place at the end of the match at the Sher-e-Bangla National Cricket Stadium,” the Dhaka Independent informed its readers on Friday. “It will consistently last 10 minutes.
The Bangladesh Cricket Board has requested the residents surrounding the stadium not to be afraid at the sound of the fireworks.”
And well they might have been, because the crash-boom-bang that ruled the world for those “consistently 10 minutes” was straight out of Armageddon. Only once the last roman candle had fallen to earth and the stadium stepped once more into the light did Smith appear. Banquo’s ghost couldn’t have made a sorrier sight. Smith didn’t have blood on his cheeks, but his heart was on his spearmint green sleeve.
“It’s hard to describe at such short notice, it’s kind of disbelief. I feel that we certainly had what it took to win and 222 was a reasonable total to chase. Except for a crazy five overs, we played some decent cricket. But it was not good enough, again.”
“Again”? If that wasn’t proof that Smith knew his team had choked, nothing was.
“It’s hard to give you answers now, we played well enough, certainly bowled well enough to win today. The batting let us down in the middle period. New Zealand squeezed us, the ball got soft, we needed to show a little more composure in that period…
“We feel terrible. There is nothing that we can say right now that will make the fans feel better. We’ve come over here, we’ve trained hard, we worked on our skills and I cannot fault the way this team has
“There’s no excuses. When the team gets on the plane and goes home there’s going to be swords and daggers there…
“We’ve just got to be honest with ourselves, that we weren’t good enough tonight. Simple as that. It’s very disappointing.”
It was a sad way for a proud man to have to end his career as South Africa’s one-day captain. But he should know that he led them better in this World Cup than he has ever done. The South Africans were a re-invented team. In Madonna terms, they were “Like a Virgin” in 1992, “Material Girls” when they should have been iron men four years later, “Don’t Cry For Me” Lance Klusener in 1999, certainly not “Into the Groove” at home in 2003, and on “Holiday” in 2007. This time they were “Beautiful Strangers” in a wonderful new state of playing to new-found strengths and through their fears and out the other side to previously only imagined success.
How Smith segued seamlessly from the conventional South African mindset of carpet bombing the opposition into submission with fast bowling to the kind of captain who tosses a spinner the ball and says, “Get the fucker out,” was a fairytale waiting to be written. How South Africa’s batsmen became strokers and whittlers of quality spin bowlers, and so avoided the big, bold, bugger-up that tends to follow too many big, bold blows, was another. Part of that story was the soft underbelly of the middle order being given – and taking – the opportunity to harden into a damn fine sixpack. Du Plessis and Robin Peterson knew they weren’t going to win many games on their own at this level, just as they knew that together they weren’t going to lose too many games.
Let’s not forget Pinky and the Brain, Morne Morkel and Dale Steyn by any other names, who were happy to step aside and allow others to spearhead the quest for world domination. In fact, watching spinners take wickets only lit fiercer fires in their bellies – witness Steyn ripping through five Indian batsmen for nine runs in the space of five of his overs.
All of that, and more, went right. So little went wrong. Until Friday. What other explanation could there be? They choked. “Simple as that.”
Barman. Atlas Lager, please. A case.