Book review: The Art of Losing

Luke Alfred's book about South Africa's failure at World Cups represents the first in-depth attempt to tackle the topic, writes Julia Harris.

It's a topic that has taken up many lines of newspapers and magazines, one that has been discussed – and lamented – endlessly by the South African public. Yet it is only now that we are presented with an in-depth attempt to discover why the Proteas never perform at World Cups, why they choke.

Luke Alfred's book <i>The Art of Losing: Why the Proteas choke at the Cricket World Cup</i> dissects each of South Africa's campaigns at the sport's showpiece event before the author attempts to provide some answers to the Proteas' biggest question.

Such a controversial title was always sure to ruffle feathers and indeed it did, with many denouncing Alfred without taking the time to read his work. It's an emotional topic for South Africans and as such many have reacted in an emotional manner. One feels Alfred's intentions are pure in the sense that, while a ruffling of the feathers was necessary, there was no malice intended.

From the outset Alfred is clear that there were different reasons why each World Cup campaign resulted in failure, and that any pattern of choking developed after the 1999 World Cup at the earliest.

He draws on interviews from former players and administrators to gain insight into what the players were feeling – and how they feel now of their failings.

From the excitement and uncertainty of the 1992 to the youthful exuberance of 1996, one can hardly blame those so new to the arena for being underprepared. In the first instance, an absurd rain ruling ended the South African's campaign while four years later they were unable to cope under intense pressure, a sign of inexperience rather than a lack of nerve.

It is in 1999 that the 'rabbit in the headlights' effect is first seen as a nervous Allan Donald and an in-the-zone Lance Klusener combine in the worst possible way. Rain once again comes to the fore in 2003 as a failure to ensure the batsmen knew the right Duckworth/Lewis calculations saw the hosts crash out.

In the Caribbean in 2007, a lack of confidence resulted in a desire to change the game plan which proved fatal, while in 2011 the Proteas saw their inability to chase under pressure come back to haunt them.

But the book is not a simple narrative of South Africa's poor run at World Cups. There are amusing antidotes that provide a peak at another side of the players and the interviews go beyond the stock standard fill that one has already heard.

More importantly, Alfred attempts to do what coach after coach has failed to do – he finds a thread that ties all of the failures together.

There are no straightforward answers, as Alfred suggests the Proteas are in fact not chokers, but rather have a tendency to panic. He believes this tendency may be rooted in South Africans as a whole, with the school system producing a generation of cricketers who are not taught to ask questions, not used to being under pressure and as a result neither learn from mistakes by addressing past failures nor find themselves adequately prepared for pressure moments.

While there is some merit in this theory it doesn't leave one feeling completely satisfied. It's not that the idea isn't sound but more that it seems incomplete. Surely we need to look beyond the schooling system and to franchise cricket where boys literally become men for answers as to why such failings are found?

Alfred has given himself a hard task in addressing this subject and it is no surprise that there is no straight answer – the matter is far too complicated for that. However, he may have been better served in devoting more time to the discussion of an overriding failing in the system or whatever the problem may be. It is the author's conclusions on the matter of losing and supposed choking, not the story of the World Cups, that will be the primary point of interest for many.

Nevertheless the topic has lacked an intelligent debate, and this book will finally open one.

<b>Julia Harris</b>

<i>Look out for an interview with the author on his controversial book early in the new week…</i>