The final moments of South Africa’s engrossing run chase against India were an illustration of the very best that Test cricket can offer. For four days India had, to the surprise of many in the cricket world, locked eye to eye with South Africa, occasionally causing the mighty hosts to flinch. And then on the fifth, two old friends and fine cricketers mounted what should have been the very best run chase in the history of our glorious sport. They fell marginally short, as valiant warriors sometimes do, but they brought their team to the very edge of the impossible. Somebody only needed to walk across the victory line.
But it didn’t happen and in the instant when the shutters were drawn, in the mind more than on the field, you realised that the contest wasn’t just bat vs ball, a team vs another, but one team against its perception of itself. With 16 needed from 19 balls, one decent batsman in with a battler for company, a genuine tail-ender in the hut with another who could barely run but, critically, wasn’t a bad blocker South Africa took a backward step. The demons must have been raging in the mind but this was the opportunity to vanquish them. Instead, South Africa opted not to lose rather than try to win.
Let’s look at it from their point of view first. The batsmen in had to ensure they didn’t lose, if they went for glory and lost the match, it would have recalled the wounds of the world cup of 1999. But in playing safe, they didn’t keep the game alive by knocking singles, they shut the door. They told the opposition they weren’t keen to take the chance.
Now, look at it from the point of view of the opposition. They have set the home side a most unlikely 458 to win. That guaranteed a win, at worst it meant they took the honours as the other side huffed and puffed to merely save a game. Now, suddenly they are faced with defeat, with the prospect of conceding the highest fourth innings winning score in the history of the game. This is a side that hasn’t been able to defend 350 in a 50 over game. From being comfortable, they are faced with demons too.
Other side of prism:
In sport we often talk about the fear in the enemy camp. You are nervous but if the opposition is even more nervous you play off that, you use their insecurity. India were edgy, they had more to lose. There was greater fear in the Indian camp. It was the time to move ahead for South Africa. But as Ian Chappell had once told me many years ago, the fear of winning can sometimes overcome you. At a time when South Africa should have been asking “what if we win” they asked themselves “what if we lose”? It is the difference between good teams and great teams.
In our book “The Winning Way” we talk about winning teams looking at the rewards of success and those that lose fearing the penalties of failure. I just wonder if the two players out there, one of those a great of the game with ball in hand, didn’t want to be seen as those that undid the good work of those that came before them; that when glory beckoned, they saw the danger. Maybe, and this is a hypothesis not necessarily the truth, they were carrying the wounds of earlier failure.
On the big stage, South Africa had collapsed in the past and so maybe that fear was upfront. “Don’t fail again” were the billboards in front of their eyes. Many former captains have said they should have gone for it, that the great Australian team from the turn of the century would have. Of course they would have because they carried no wounds from the past. Their past offered them a glimpse at opportunity, South Africa’s past showed them the possibility of despair.
The mind in turmoil asks itself “Can I?” and follows that with “What if I can’t?”. The clear mind only asks itself “How”? If Philander and Steyn didn’t have the option of accepting a no, they might have looked at the whole situation differently. Just as their magnificent batsmen had all day. But Steyn and Philander were not wrong, they were merely conditioned into a certain response. And for South Africa to become a great team, that conditioned response must be the one that searches for opportunity, not one that fears defeat.
Lest we be accused of passing judgement on others it is a good time to ask ourselves this question: when faced with a tough situation, do we see the opportunity or the danger? Do we venture forth or do we play safe? Each situation is different from the other, each mind is unique and so we all react differently.
Now, if Test cricket had no draws, would South Africa have been forced to ask “How can I win” rather than a mere “Can I win?”