Don’t let Mickey Arthur’s upbeat nature fool you. He might be one of the nicest guys in cricket, but there is a reason the veteran coach has overcome a bitter sacking by Australia and endured tumultuous positions in Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
Arthur is obviously hard-bitten, but also pragmatic. Although he might have a blind spot when it comes to South Africa – his home country who he successfully coached from 2005-10 to kickstart his international coaching career.
“When I was coach, I didn’t think the players were concerned by what the media was saying,” Arthur once told me. “The chokers tag is a media invention and it has generated media hype.”
Arthur is, of course, referring to South Africa’s macabre record in major cricket events. Even though South Africa have arguably been the most consistent team since their readmission in 1992, they are titleless in World Cups.
Given cricket’s lack of genuine title contenders, it is quite shocking South Africa haven’t even been able to reach the final in the 50-over or T20 World Cups. They have lost four World Cup semi-finals, but none worse than that fateful day on 17 June 1999 which has been dredged up continually by the broadcaster ahead of the showdown between Australia and South Africa on Thursday.
For the sake of South African supporters’ collective sanity, it is pointless to dredge up the gory details of that classic tied match. South Africa have been left haunted ever since over their implosion in those final moments which have been inked into cricket lore, but remain unfortunately intrinsically linked to their cricket team.
It has led to the dreaded c-word that some pundits – the Skip Bayless’s of the world – throw around so liberally. Although it’s hard not using the word choke when describing them given their continual slew of horrific defeats stretching three decades.
“There is no doubt the team’s public perception will not change until they win a World Cup,” Arthur said in a belated acknowledgement that South Africa’s unwanted reputation hangs over them like a noose.
Arthur presided over three semi-finals losses although he is probably right when he says South Africa “didn’t choke but rather were beaten by better teams”. And that might prove prophetic against an increasingly confident Australia, who they beat impressively earlier in the tournament.
But the stakes back then were low and South Africa faced an Australia team easing their way into the competition. Still the teams look evenly matched with South Africa having played the more consistent cricket throughout the tournament compared to an Australian team relying on individual brilliance for wins.
No matter which way you spin it, the pressure is on South Africa, who need to overcome a curse if they are to meet India in Sunday’s final.
It feels like South Africa’s best chance will be to bat first and post a big total then let their star-studded attack do the rest. That is the blueprint for their success but, conversely, South Africa struggle to chase as the nerves kick in.
South Africa were unable to beat underdog Netherlands and it just feels inevitable that the semi-final lights will be too bright for them if South Africa have to chase down a total – even a modest one.
With bad weather circling Kolkata there is a chance South Africa could reach the final if rain intervenes. That might well be poetic justice for them given their misfortune over the years.
But amid the cauldron of the famed Eden Gardens, you feel South Africa will have to face the ghosts of the past in a bid to finally put an end to their hoodoo.