Cricket: South Africa aim to shed ‘choker’ tag

AB de Villiers: Astute captain. Picture: Getty
AB de Villiers: Astute captain. Picture: Getty
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THE word “choker” will be bandied about a lot at the Cricket World Cup.

South Africa, regularly among the top contenders entering the biggest event in limited-overs cricket, have never won a knockout match at the World Cup.

In a cricket context, choking is a term a previous generation of South African stars got sick of hearing. It’s a cruel tag which AB de Villiers and his current crop of Proteas must overcome if they’re to break one of cricket’s most confounding droughts.

Favourites Australia and a fast-improving New Zealand are expected to revel in home conditions, while defending champions India, 1996 winners Sri Lanka and 1992 champions Pakistan can never be ruled out of contention.

England have experienced some team turmoil in the wake of Kevin Pietersen’s departure and the decision to dispense with Alastair Cook as captain, but did reach the final at the Melbourne Cricket Ground 23 years ago, when Australia – then the defending champions – didn’t reach the semi-finals.

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But many consider this to be South Africa’s time, if they can avoid the blighted moments that tainted previous campaigns, particularly in 1999 and 2003.

In De Villiers, South Africa has one of the most exciting, attacking and poised batsmen in the game, as shown by his world record 31-ball century – on the way to 149 from 44 balls – in a limited-overs international against the West Indies last month. His captaincy is astute, on and off the field, and he is backed up prominently by veteran opener Hashim Amla and a pace attack spearheaded by Dale Steyn.

One of the first questions posed to him after arriving in New Zealand to prepare for his team’s opening game against Zimbabwe was about the South African sports minister’s reported instructions not to come home as a “bunch of losers”.

“We’re expected to come here and win the tournament so we understand that and obviously there’s pressure that comes with comments like that,” De Villiers said, “but we don’t mind.”

There are also plenty of expectations of four-times champions Australia, who have won World Cups in all kinds of conditions from the Indian subcontinent to Britain, to Africa and the Caribbean, but failed miserably last time they co-hosted the tournament with New Zealand in 1992. The Aussies are dealing with other distractions, too, notably the desperate bid by 33-year-old captain Michael Clarke to pass a fitness test that has been pushed back until after they face England early tomorrow morning. Hamstring allowing, he hopes to play in Australia’s second match against Bangladesh.

Coach Darren Lehmann said: “Getting support from the crowd and entertaining them and playing the brand cricket we have done over the last 18 months – if we do that, the results will look after themselves.”

With batsmen expected to dominate on hard, fast wickets, clean hitters such as De Villiers, the Indian pair of Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma, Pakistan’s Shahid Afridi, New Zealand captain Brendon McCullum and the under-performing West Indies’ veteran Chris Gayle are capable of having big impacts on games. For Australia, David Warner, has made headlines for his recent runs against India, and for his run-ins with the Indian players.

India won the title in 1983 to break the West Indies’ stranglehold on the 50-over format, then became the first team to win the Cup on home soil when they beat Australia, Pakistan and Sri Lanka in consecutive knockout matches in 2011. But there have been some failures, and MS Dhoni’s squad didn’t win a competitive match in the two months they have been in Australia for a Test series and ODI tour.

“There’s cooked and overcooked, and especially if you do barbecues you’d understand that,” Dhoni said last weekend, trying to add some Aussie flavour, before adding that in a previous Champions Trophy event the squad was in a similar position. “The guys stepped up and that’s important in the ICC tournaments.”

India open against Pakistan on Sunday in Adelaide, a match that local organisers are tipping will attract the biggest TV audience ever for a cricket match.

The 44-day, 14-city, 49-game tournament starts tonight, when New Zealand host Sri Lanka in Christchurch before the Australia-England clash at the Melbourne Cricket Ground – which is also venue for the 25 March final.