The dust won’t have settled on the opening match of the Mzansi Super League when the Proteas Women start their must-win Women’s World T20 match against the mighty England Women, writes SIMON LEWIS.
It’s a do-or-die contest for the Proteas Women on Friday night, as defeat will almost certainly dump them out of the tournament – and to fall again at the hands of England would not go down well.
Social media was littered with the C-word after the Proteas Women lost to the World Champ Windies earlier this week having played themselves into a winning position but, to be honest, I’m getting a little tired of South Africans being branded as Chokers.
All teams fail at times, even the mightiest, yet as South Africans we seem far too willing to wrap the Chokers Cloak around ourselves at every opportunity. It’s time to take a stand for the Proteas!
In 2000 I had a media pass to watch a day of tennis at Wimbledon for the first time. I found myself on Centre Court (what an atmosphere!) watching Anna Kournikova playing Sandrine Testud.
Watching Kournikova live and hearing the pop of her racquet strings, seeing how she glided across the baseline and tactically used her genuine skills to beat her opponent was an eye-opener. Kournikova really was a good tennis player, not just Tennis Barbie brought out for the fashion show. She wasn’t one of the top five players in the world, but then only five players can fill those shoes.
However, because she was beautiful and a tennis player, Kournikova was labelled as ‘just a pretty face’ when she failed to win Grand Slam events (or any events, to be fair). The truth is that she spent her childhood years hammering hundreds of thousands of tennis balls over a net at Nick Bollettieri’s famed tennis academy as she strove to be one of the best players in the world. She was a genuine competitor, was ranked in the Top 10 in singles at one stage and, don’t forget, she and her partner Martina Hingis were ranked number one in women’s doubles for many a year.
Despite all her efforts and achievements, Kournikova was labelled as being ‘just there for her looks’.
What amazed me that day at Wimbledon was how the crowd got behind Kournikova – they were willing her on as if she was Andy Murray! The crowd seemed to lift her and carry her on a wave of belief. Then she double-faulted, and the ‘oooooh’ that rang out around Centre Court was chilling.
It was as if all belief was sucked out of the crowd.
‘There, she’s failed – she must be just a pretty face after all,’ I could hear the crowd thinking.
That reaction from her audience visibly rattled Kournikova, and she played the next few points nervously, perhaps doubting herself as well. After a few good shots she regained her composure and managed to play out a 2-1 win over her opponent to progress to the next round.
I don’t think she made it further than the third or fourth round that year, but we can’t expect everyone to be a champion. What I took from that experience, however, is the impact a label can have on a player, or a team, as well as the belief – or loss of belief – from the crowd.
On their day the Proteas Women can give any team a run for their money, although the top five of Australia, England, New Zealand, the West Indies and India will usually triumph over the Proteas simply because they have the advantage of having had so many more years of experience and support as full-time professionals.
The Proteas Women are currently ranked sixth in the world in T20Is, and it’s hard to argue with rankings, so perhaps we should all cut the team some slack the next time they disappoint us in defeat. They’re working hard towards being more competitive on a consistent basis, and they will stumble and fall. They will then be as critical on themselves as we might be for their failure, and that’s all part of the game. However, let’s take that C-word and bury it deep, as it’s an ugly word that breeds doubt and insecurity – and the last thing we want is for the teams we support to carry the added burdens of any self-doubts.
The Proteas Men could also benefit from being freed from the shackles of the C-word.
‘But they have “choked” three times in World Cup semi-finals before,’ you cry out in despair!
Admittedly it was bitterly, painfully (even tear-jerkingly) disappointing to lose three World Cup semi-finals the way they have, but I can think of a few other teams who have ‘choked’ in the really big one – the World Cup final!
West Indies in 1983. Choked.
Australia in 1996. Choked.
Pakistan in 1999. Choked.
New Zealand in 2015. Choked.
That’s a whole lot of Prime Time Choking going on a long way from the Proteas team, so how come our Proteas (men and women) are lumped with the burden of being the World’s Greatest Chokers? Could it be a grand conspiracy against us? Who really cares, as all that really matters is that we support our players with positive energy and enthusiasm to help them lift their game when times are tough.
It’s possibly too much to expect the Proteas Women to even make the semi-final of the World T20 this month but, in a knockout tournament, who knows! On their day they can do it but, if they don’t, please step away from the C-Word this time.
It might help to put everything in context for a moment by thinking about who the real World Cup chokers are … and it’s not the Proteas. Personally, I’d be happy to pin the tail on the England donkey, as their men’s team have already lost in the World Cup final three times!
Now that has got to leave a bad taste in the mouth!
The irony, of course, is that the Proteas and England men’s teams have a good chance of meeting up in the final in 2019, but it would certainly help if Dane van Niekerk’s side can first lay their hands on the Women’s World T20 trophy on 24 November … after all, as Nelson Mandela showed the world, a little belief and a lot of support can go a long, long way!
Photo: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images