Proteas, Panic, and the Unimportance of Winning

There is something so fascinating about the South African national cricket side. They so clearly have a real psychological and cultural block when it comes to knock-out cricket – yet they never even own up to it.

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In fact, one could almost even say that not owning their weakness is truly their inherent weakness.

As a big cricket fan, I admit that I get far too emotionally invested in what is really just a game of cricket – a knocking about of leather by willow – and so my knee-jerk reaction after another classic case of Protea Panic is to forget about it and move on.

But this time I am truly intrigued on a human level with this bizarre and continuous re-enactment of ‘choking’, tournament after tournament, as though they were doomed to repeat the past again and again.

For some reason, one of the great and bizarre quotes from Peter ‘P-Divvy’ de Villiers came to mind on Monday morning. He once said, to general mockery,’There is no difference between winning and losing. The only difference is how you feel after.’

Of course, this was immediately dismissed as nonsense, but I wonder if he was not onto something.

At the end of the day, in sport, you don’t actually physically get to change the scoreboard. All you can do is try make one good decision, one after the other, and hopefully enact those decisions with the desired skill.

And, in fact, worrying about the scoreboard can sometimes just be a distraction. You need to get lost almost in the ‘nothingness’ of the craft or skill, and let everything else sort itself out. I sometimes wonder if the right word to be used for this is what Buddhists call ‘zen’.

It seems to me the Proteas try too hard to win. They bottle up their skill (as seen by the unnecessary caution of our opening batsmen), and then they panic by trying to force the game along, almost ‘suicidally’ so. It seemed to me almost that those run-outs are a symptom of some kind of embedded organisational psyche to escape the moment prematurely. Especially for cricketers, this is the worst thing you can do as a sportsman – when so often simply staying in the moment, and being present for as long as possible, can lead to suprising successes and turn-arounds.

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So what’s the solution?

In my limited knowledge and experience, I would suggest that letting go of winning as the ultimate goal might be the way to break through the panic.

Now that’s particularly hard when losing is so clearly the problem. But I simply see no other way.

The successful Saracens rugby club speak about how they do not aim to win trophies. There are too many external and uncontrollable factors to winning a trophy. What they aim for is to create positive memories with friends. And thus they win trophies.

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In the Proteas’ case, it seems they have been caught up in a negative cycle of desiring trophies so much, and thus negating the best path for winning them – forgetting about them. The irony is they seem to understand this somewhat – they always talk about ‘controllables’ and ‘process’. But quite obviously they haven’t quite done the introspection necessary to understand, and thus exorcise, their inherited demons.

This is completely obvious in the case of AB de Villiers. Literally his first response to losing was to assert the goal to win the World Cup in 2019. (And when you think of how he has quit Test cricket to this end, the problems really become obvious.)

On the positive side, however, this does make the side really interesting to watch. They have almost become a metaphor for a whole way of living life…

There is a great scene in the underrated football film, ‘The Replacements’. The film centres on a players’ strike at a football team, and the also-rans who find themselves with a second, and transitory, shot at glory. The best scene in the film comes from a team room session where the coach played by Gene Hackman tries to get them to grapple with their fear:

The conversation almost seems glib at the end – ‘Put your fear into San Diego!’ – but I wonder if there is not a nugget of wisdom hidden here.

Once you have said your fear out loud, to a large extent you have already conquered it. By saying it out loud, it almost ‘happens’. You live it. And the sky does not fall on your head. The fear itself doesn’t go away. Nor is the situation solved. But you understand yourself as being in the situation, and so you can choose how to act.

And so then the next thing to do is get on with the basic tasks, and craft, of life.

That’s not always easy, especially in our time. The this-worldly focus of Zen can be lost in the present age’s ephemera of entertainment, exhibitionism, and consumerism. And cricket sure seems to be filling up with this stuff, when you think of the IPL circuit.

But the focus on craft as pre-requisite for winning, and not vice versa, is something that must always be achieved.

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In the late David Foster Wallace’s posthumous novel, ‘The Pale King’, the ‘action’ is set in tax office, in which the great lesson to be learnt in the midst of boredom is that true heroism is a kind of focus – not a grand decision:

“The key is the ability, whether innate or conditioned, to find the other side of the rote, the picayune, the meaningless, the repetitive, the pointlessly complex. To be, in a word, unborable… It is the key to modern life. If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish.”

In other words, no matter where you are, heroism comes not from waiting for a grand moment, but from paying closer attention.

Here Wallace seems to be reflecting an even more ancient wisdom, from the great and fallen king, Solomon, writing in the Old Testament book, Ecclesiastes, in the midst of a kind of bored scepticism as to whether there is any point to how we live our lives: “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might…”

This is not how we bring heaven to earth, to be sure, but it does seem to be a key ingredient to living a whole life here and now.

Don’t worry about winning, whatever that means. Do the next right thing. Focus on your craft.

And however long the Proteas take to overcome the problem, at least they are provoking us all to seek the solution.