International Cricket

SA coach Walter wants team to embrace ‘anxiety and excitement’ in low-key semi-final build-up

At the risk of navel-gazing and giving too much importance to mainstream media, it is hard to contemplate team representatives outnumbering the press at a press conference before a World Cup semi-final. South Africa’s head coach Rob Walter arrived with their media officer and security officer to speak to a total of one member of the press. This is not the first time it has happened with South Africa during this World Cup – they kicked off their campaign on Long Island similarly – but there is something eerie about a semi-final creating no buzz in one of the most passionate centres for cricket at the T20 World Cup 2024.

Well, almost one of the most passionate centres. For this ground – Brian Lara Cricket Academy – is located 50km from Port-of-Spain, on the outskirts of San Fernando. The Queen’s Park Oval, owned by a private club, has refused to upgrade with the times and has been left behind, but taking such a showpiece event away from the historic venue in the heart of Port-of-Spain to a ground that doesn’t necessarily hold more people is akin to cutting the nose to spite the face.

Then comes the schedule, which doesn’t even give teams the time to train. South Africa at least held an optional training session after having arrived on Monday night, but Afghanistan finished their qualification well into the wee hours of Tuesday for a match on Wednesday. So excuse them for not training a day before the semi-final.

Not that the ICC would have thrown open the gates to the public to watch the training anyway. There are lessons to be learnt from MCG in Melbourne and Eden Gardens in Kolkata, two of the few international grounds where people can come and watch the nets.

Despite all this and other problems, the World Cup has been a roaring success. On TV, that is. Perhaps that’s the future of the sport? The fans at the grounds are just not worth the bother. The carnival atmosphere that World Cups of sports carry doesn’t seem to be a prerequisite for the cricket one to be a success.

Not that South Africa mind. They allegedly freeze under the spotlight so perhaps it is best to stay under the radar? “This is an empty hall, which is a good sign, I think,” Walter joked when asked if it felt like a semi-final. Before he put the press in its place: “It’s not really about the press but about the occasion, isn’t it?”

Walter did say that you can’t mislead yourself into believing it is just another game. Better to embrace it and the emotions that come with it. How does it manifest? Do you train differently? Do you not sleep well?

Walter again joked he is not the best person to talk about the quality of sleep since his is never “very good”. “I think there’s always an energy that you can feel that’s tangible when it comes to a semi-final,” he went on to say. There’ll be a mixture of emotions which is with anxiety but excitement and I think anyone in any sport, if they get to this phase of a competition, feels that. And so really, it’s just acknowledging that and accepting it and then just understanding what you’ll do with that. We still want to play our best cricket in the key moments of the game tomorrow.”

It is being said that this South Africa is different because it has been winning close games, but is a convenient, almost unfalsifiable claim: if they fail to win the title, it will again be said that they failed to win “when it mattered the most”. Walter chose not to argue that point but said whatever near misses have taken place, in the past, the burden is not theirs to carry.

‘The near misses in the past, they belong to the people who missed them,” Walter said. “To be honest, this team is a different team. We own whatever is ours to own. And so, our nearest reflection point is this tournament where we’ve managed to get over the line. So that’s what we think about.”

That is exactly what another South African by birth, Englishman by nationality, and Afghanistan coach Jonathan Trott is focussing on. “We go into the semi-final with no scarring or no history with regards to semi-finals,” Trott said minutes after winning against Bangladesh. “This is uncharted territory for us. We’re just going to go out there and give it our all. There’s no preconceived ideas on it all, or history of failure or success in semi-finals in past years. For us it’s a new challenge, and I think that makes us dangerous in the semi-finals as a side with nothing to lose and obviously a lot of pressure on the opposition.”

Now that feels like a semi-final-level attempt at needling.

Sidharth Monga is a senior writer at ESPNcricinfo

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