I grew up with my mother using the words “England expects” as preamble to any important assignment I had, whether it was sporting or academic. It wasn’t that our family has any fealty to England; more that it seemed appropriate to borrow from Admiral Nelson’s “England expects that every man will do his duty”, which was the message that went out to his fleet just prior to the Battle of Trafalgar.
The expectations of a nation are a heavy mantle; especially when either of the Proteas or Springboks (South Africa’s national cricket and rugby teams) take to the field. Sunday’s group stage match in the Cricket World Cup, against England, was no different.
Except, every time the Proteas lose an important match they would have won most other days they are accused of having ‘choked’.
Scoring at three runs to the over, even on a dodgy pitch, is not a tough ask of a team that has aspirations to winning the entire tournament. But, to the disappointment of millions of South Africans, they were bowled out seven runs short of the target, with plenty of balls to spare. Two fours would have done it; a six would have resulted in a tied result. But no, in the final analysis, the team was devoid of the heroics that would have brought victory and honour to the team. How many times have we not seen – in a one-day international – victory being snatched from the jaws of defeat by a single batsman standing tall, smashing the ball to all corners of the stadium?
It is very easy to sit at home, watching the ball spinning harmlessly through the air in slow motion, and suggest that the men did not do their duty. That they choked when confronted with the hugeness of the task at hand.
On the other hand, a group of men (and women) who certainly didn’t choke on Sunday – either literally or figuratively – gathered for a late afternoon lunch at our house. They were predominantly chefs, their spouses and kids, as well as a few foodie-inclined people. The centre-piece of the lunch was slow-roasted shoulder of pork (two of them, to be precise), weighing in at 13kg. It was way too much food, but we knew that only one shoulder would be too little.
In cricketing terms, it was a bit like being asked to score 100 overs’ worth of runs in only 50 overs, but the guests went about their eating with such gusto that the leftovers were quite minimal. No-one could accuse them of having ‘choked’!
As an experiment, we cooked the two shoulders slightly differently. Each of them was rubbed with a mixture of fennel seeds and salt, and laid atop a bed of chopped onion, carrot, garlic and fennel bulbs, moistened with a bottle of white wine. They were roasted for about eight hours at 100-degrees. One of them, though, was covered with foil, which trapped the moisture. Just before service we added half a litre of chicken stock to each roasting tray and cranked up the grill to crisp the now-uncovered covered one.
The crackling on the one that had been roasted uncovered may have had the slight edge, but the meat of the covered one was juicier and more tender.
I took a little straw poll amongst the chefs, and we agreed that the best way to get perfect crackling is to remove the skin from the roast, slice it thinly, season it well, and then whack it under the grill. Getting the perfect roast, as well as the perfect crackling, is a lot easier when the processes are separated.
Cricket, of course, is a symbol for gentlemanly behaviour, in which the principles of sportsmanship are theoretically sacrosanct, hence the expression: “It’s just not cricket.” Losing with grace implies that one praises the excellent performance of the winners. To say that South Africa choked yesterday against England is to give insufficient credit to a few excellent balls bowled by the likes of Broad, Anderson and Swann.
The literal meaning of ‘choke’ is to restrict the flow of something. In this case, the flow of runs was constrained by a combination of good bowling and tricky pitch. The Proteas’ batting certainly wasn’t up to par, but was it the product of a psychological problem running through the team? I don’t think so. Golf is perhaps the most ‘psychology-driven’ of all sports, and even the best golfer in the world doesn’t win every tournament he enters.
Saturday’s game against India is a shot at redemption, and I’m pretty sure the Proteas are going to be pumped up for it. South Africa expects.