The Problem With South Africa’s Choking Reputation

The problem with the choker tag is that it’s very, very difficult to dispel. Say you’re accused of being a rash batsman, always looking for the shots. You could easily take it easy for a few balls in your next innings, while commentators scratch their heads and call you “unusually sedate.”

Not so with choking, because the dynamic works like this: you lose a few high-profile games. Your reputation is, ‘Talented, but can’t handle pressure.’ Then, next tournament comes around, journalists begin the queries: Will you handle the pressure? How will you handle the pressure? Aren’t you worried about the pressure? (Meanwhile, other teams get asked routine questions, like, Are you worried about X batsman’s form? Will your bowlers perform at the death?) Then, say you do end up in a pressure situation. Now you face not just the match at hand, but the added problem of having an entire audience’s question aimed at you. Pressure’s hard on its own; the pressure of pressure is debilitating.

Corrie van Zyl said as much recently. Ruminating on South Africa’s shocking loss to New Zealand, he said:

“All the disappointments of the past World Cups have caught up with us,” he said. “That’s where the pressure starts piling up. We must remember that most of the squad that played in this tournament weren’t part of those campaigns, but we make them part of that by constantly reminding them of previous failures.”

It’s a vicious cycle. Everyone knows the solution: stop choking. At some point, South Africa will do that; they’re just too talented to go on like this. And when they do win, their batting collapses will be treated with the same discourses as other teams’. When India or Pakistan collapse, for instance, we blame inconsistency or unprofessionalism or lopsided batting orders or particular faults in technique. When South Africa collapse, we call it choking. This is what reputations are about, and the only way to dispel them is confront them head on.

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