Johannesburg - The Proteas’ two-run defeat in what would have been a series-equalling second one-day international against England last Saturday triggered a round of nationwide introspection.
What made the looking within a little uncomfortable was that, with about eight balls to go in the match, they needed a run a ball to win it – which, in this day of mishits attaining maximum runs, seemed to be a cinch.
That it didn’t happen and the fact that David Miller and Chris Morris were the two batsmen at the crease, had many reaching for the c-word in their mad scramble to explain the defeat.
The thing is, Miller is the team’s designated finisher and Morris is one of the key all-rounders in the side. They are a significant part of Russell Domingo’s plan to subdue opponents by way of a sting in the tail from a lengthy batting line-up.
Nobody knows if the capitulation – if you want to call falling short by two runs when chasing 330 a capitulation – is another sign that the top ODI side in the world still has a penchant for choking or not.
But, given our self-esteem issues, the reasons for which are the subject of another column altogether, there are no prizes for guessing what the loss was chalked down to.
After winning seven of their last eight ODI series by playing consistent and at times dynamic cricket, the very minimum expectation of the Proteas is that they reach the ICC Champions Trophy knockout stages, which began for them with their Pool B match against Sri Lanka on Saturday.
If they don’t, we can all revert to being armchair psychologists. The next fortnight will clarify whether the team that has swept all before it in the past season, playing, dare one say it, brave cricket, is still hampered by ghosts of major tournaments past.
In the meantime, it’s not entirely a bad thing that they lost the series to England.
Chinese water torture
Going into the Champions Trophy ranked first in the world (with the top two bowlers in the world, nogal) and having not lost a series in forever is the kind of target Australian teams thrive on.
South African teams, however, tend to crumble under the weight of expectation that comes with that prominence because, historically, they are the kind of beasts who love doing their fighting from the underdog’s corner.
In a quarter of a century of being back in international sport, many of our teams still yearn for a wall to have their backs against so they can yell “we told you!” when they win.
The Proteas are traditionally no different – although one can make a case for the Faf du Plessis-led Test team – and losing to England would have eased what, for them, is the Chinese water torture of expectation.
It’s not an ideal or long-lasting source of motivation, but it’ll do.
The really good thing about the England series is that it would have given the players and the coaches what they call “work-ons” going into the Champions Trophy – the most pressing being their fielding and the balance of their bowling attack.
Prove to themselves
There were hints of those aspects being addressed in the victory in the third and final ODI. But not only was the pressure off, but England had also taken their eye off that Monday game to focus on their tournament opener against Bangladesh on Thursday.
However, there are positives to look at, like the cricket the team has played in the past year; paceman Kagiso Rabada being elevated to the number one bowler in the world status; the Indian Premier League playing Hashim Amla into form; Quinton de Kock being “Quinny”; AB de Villiers looking a little grumpier than usual of late (good captains usually do – think Steve Waugh) and the fact that Imran Tahir hasn’t fired yet in England.
Also, a little context might go a long way: Domingo deliberately used the England series as warm-up games, making sure that everyone got a run.
But, ultimately, what he and his team need to do is to play to prove to themselves that the journey they embarked on last year is the right one – not to prove us wrong.
Follow me on Twitter @Simxabanisa