The lasting effects of South Africa’s ultimate act of self-destruction continue to cause distress and apprehension, according to Rob Smyth.
“If you refer to us as chokers, please remember that this term originated before 1997. It is now 1999 and the concept of choking is no longer relevant.”
Over 24 years ago, Bob Woolmer, the coach of South Africa at the time, urged the media to alter their portrayal. Sadly, 16 years later during the 2007 World Cup, he passed away unexpectedly. Despite the passage of time, the issue of choking still persists.
Unfortunately, Woolmer’s statements were made just before the most catastrophic elimination of South Africa from the ODI World Cup. This occurred during the intense semi-final match against Australia at Edgbaston, where Allan Donald was tragically run out with only two balls left. The memories of South Africa’s previous World Cup performances could occupy an entire five-story building. To make matters worse, they will be facing their two most feared opponents, Australia and the dreaded semi-finals, in Kolkata on Thursday.
South Africa is the sole team in global cricket to have a better one-day international record against Australia. They have emerged victorious in 15 out of the last 18 meetings, including a dominant performance in Lucknow during this tournament. However, they have never been able to defeat Australia in a World Cup elimination match. The rivalry between the two teams has often been tense, with the underlying belief that South Africa’s chances of winning against Australia decrease as the importance of the match increases. Steve Waugh, who was the captain of Australia in 1999, acknowledged that South Africa played well but felt that they were too desperate for a win when facing Australia.
Following the devastation of 1999, they became determined to win against all opponents. It is difficult to comprehend that the only ICC tournament final South Africa has reached was the 1998 Champions Trophy, where they defeated West Indies. This occurred six weeks after their victory over Australia in the gold medal match at the Commonwealth Games. These two wins led Woolmer to believe that the “choking” phenomenon was no longer relevant.
His remarks became outdated and terrible very quickly, but nobody could have predicted what would occur the following day. It seems intrusive to revisit such a distressing moment, and perhaps this piece should include a warning for sensitive content. The intense desire from both parties, particularly South Africa, resulted in a level of pressure and intensity that many of us will never encounter or fully comprehend.
One of the defining qualities of a great sport is the ability to evoke a sense of nerves even upon rewatching, regardless of your bias and knowledge of the outcome. The conclusion of the 1999 semi-final in cricket is a prime example, as it can still trigger emotional reactions in many fans.
In a tense and close match, South Africa was attempting to reach a total of 214. In the final over, they needed nine runs to win with only one wicket remaining. Lance Klusener, known for his precise batting style in the World Cup, confidently hit the first two balls from Damien Fleming for four runs each. This tied the scores, but Klusener was one of the few who realized that a tie would result in Australia advancing. In the 20th century, when the internet was still new and not widely accessible, it was difficult for people to find out the details of the rules.
In the final moments of the game, South Africa only needed one run to win. This seemed like such a simple task, but it was proving to be a challenge. The player in the No 11 position, Donald, had been anxiously waiting in the TV umpire’s room for 30 overs, hoping to avoid having to bat. His wish came true in a way – he didn’t have to face a ball, all he had to do was run. However, in the highest pressure situation of his career, and perhaps anyone’s career, he struggled to even do that. He carelessly stepped out of his crease for the next ball and would have been out if Darren Lehmann’s throw had hit the stumps.
The game ended quickly. Only 36 seconds passed between Fleming’s second-to-last and last deliveries, going against the common sports psychology of staying calm, communicating with teammates, not hurrying, lowering heart rate, and taking in oxygen. In the 2019 match between England and New Zealand, there were 103 seconds between the last two balls. However, in 1999, it seemed as though the players on both teams were at their breaking points and just wanted to finish the game quickly.
When Klusener forced the next ball down the ground and made a run for it, a spooked Donald didn’t move, except to turn his head to follow the ball. It would have been a risky single even if he had set off straight away; in the space of a couple of deliveries Klusener’s cool authority had given way to a desperate gamble.
Klusener continued to run, exiting the field without hesitation. He briefly glanced behind him to confirm what he already suspected. The most heartbreaking moment in World Cup history was perhaps Donald’s futile effort to run to the opposite end without his bat, as if he hoped for a miracle, even though he knew it was unlikely.
After finishing his game, Donald went into the physiotherapist’s room and locked the door. He was still wearing his pads and cried for thirty minutes. Despite being a strong and impressive player during the game, he did not deserve this outcome.
Whether it’s just or not, the game solidified South Africa’s image as underachievers, a label that has followed them for years. Their history with international competitions, especially the 50-over World Cup, is a complex narrative of disappointment and occasional absurdity, spanning several eras. Cricket, often seen as a moral authority, is responsible for keeping the sport in line. However, with South Africa, it seems to have revealed a rarely seen cruel streak.
The intersection of storylines is rather unusual. In 1999 and 2003, South Africa faced elimination from their own World Cup due to misinterpreting a Duckworth-Lewis sheet, resulting in a tied match that they needed to win. In the semi-final against England in 1992, they were hindered by a poorly thought out rain rule that changed the required score from 22 runs off 13 balls to 21 runs off 1 ball. Unfortunately, the weather conditions did not cooperate and this also happened in 2003 and 2015.
The 1992 semi-final is famously known as the “21 off one ball” match, but in reality, South Africa’s loss was by 19 runs – the same difference as their surprising defeat against a West Indies team led by Brian Lara in the 1996 quarter-final.
Fifteen years after their previous quarter-final defeat, the South African cricket team suffered another loss, characterized by the preventable dismissal of AB de Villiers due to a run-out against New Zealand. In the 1999 semi-final, the team also experienced three run-outs, including one by the legendary Allan Donald. In a similar fashion, captain Shaun Pollock was run-out at a crucial moment in the game against Sri Lanka four years later.
There have been several instances of self-sabotage, including South Africa’s controversial decision to exclude key fast bowlers Allan Donald in 1996 and Kyle Abbott in 2015. A crucial factor in their 1999 semi-final match against Australia was Herschelle Gibbs dropping Steve Waugh while celebrating prematurely in a Super Six game four days prior. Despite a bleak weather forecast and the rain rule favoring the team batting first, South Africa chose to bowl in the 1992 semi-final. In 2015, they missed five opportunities in the field against New Zealand. Additionally, no other team has been eliminated after misinterpreting a Duckworth/Lewis sheet.
Another key aspect that characterizes South Africa’s unsuccessful performances in the World Cup is their tendency to struggle when chasing. As stated by their captain, Temba Bavuma, during the tournament, there is uncertainty regarding whether they have a winning strategy in such situations. This problem is not exclusive to the current team, as past experiences have shown. In fact, the majority of South Africa’s World Cup defeats have come when they have batted second. The outcome of the semi-final on Thursday may hinge on the toss, for once with no influence from the playing surface.
In the 2007 semi-final, South Africa was not the team batting second. Australia won by seven wickets, but South Africa’s batting was the main reason for their defeat. Despite their determination to compete with Australia, their aggressive approach backfired and they lost five wickets in the first 10 overs due to irresponsible shots.
South Africa has been unsuccessful in winning 10 semi-finals in international tournaments in a row. In 1999, they technically did not lose, as the game ended in a tie. However, they were eliminated due to a “vile technicality” according to Wisden, or what others referred to as article 11.4 of the World Cup playing conditions. Australia advanced instead, as they had a higher rank in the Super Six stage. This rule only applied to the semi-finals, and if there had been a tie in the final, the World Cup would have been shared.
Eight years after the game, both Woolmer and the captain of South Africa, Hansie Cronje, had passed away. The remaining members of the South African team will relive the memories on Thursday.
The success of the Spanish football team, the All Blacks, and England’s white-ball team led by Eoin Morgan demonstrates that it is never too late to break free from stereotypes. Similar to South Africa, these teams had to overcome significant psychological barriers ingrained in their nation’s mindset. The term “chokers”, often carelessly used by those who have never experienced competition, will continue to be associated with South Africa until they are able to win a Cricket World Cup. However, before they can achieve this ultimate redemption, there are a few important challenges they must overcome.