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OPINION: The Proteas did not choke

The best novelists and movie-makers could not write the scripts that sports events produce. Who could have predicted that South Africa would be knocked out the World Cup by a St Stithians old boy klapping Dale Steyn out of Eden Park with just one ball to spare? That we would come so tantalisingly close to victory.

The turbulent, emotional rollercoaster ride of the Proteas' loss in the semi-final was beyond the scope of what we feel in our routine lives. As I so often say, sport is emotion amplified. The pathos, the drama, the ecstasy and the devastation are extreme.

That's why we get so ridiculously emotionally invested in games. We feel, and we feel passionately, when our team takes to the field, when they lose and when they win. It's why the entire nation came to a screeching halt yesterday and in unison we stood in front of televisions screens, hands on our heads, watching those last few overs. It's why our hopes soared when we witnessed Faf du Plessis lying flat on his back pumping his fists after taking that catch. It's why our hearts broke when we watched the man-mountain Morne Morkel weeping on the field.

It's also why so many slipped into default mode after the game, using the closest label at hand to slap on the losers: chokers.

A lazy online sub-editor immediately threw it into a headline: 'Proteas "choked" out of World Cup'. Abusive 'fans' on Twitters liberally hurled it around as they vented their frustration and outrage. I understand - people were disappointed.

But for all their faults, and there were many, the Proteas did not 'choke'. Not in this Cricket World Cup semi-final.

The Oxford Dictionary describes 'choking' as "a failure to perform at a crucial point of a game or contest as a result of nervousness". There are more scientific definitions, of course. The first official study into the concept of choking, done by social psychologist Roy Baumeister in 1984, defined choking as "performance decrements under pressure circumstances". Subsequent researchers expanded on this explanation, describing it as "the failure of normal expert skills under pressure" or "a process whereby the individual perceives that their resources are insufficient to meet the demands of the situation and concludes with a significant drop in performance".

To my sports fanatic mind, it's when someone has a big lead and tosses it. It's when your team is convinced of victory and implodes. It's when Rory McIlroy shoots a 43 on the back nine and falls apart during the final round of the 2011 Masters. It's when Jana Navotna snatches defeat from the jaws of victory at the 1993 Wimbledon final when she needs just five points to beat Steffi Graf.

The Proteas worked desperately hard to shake the 'chokers' tag and they finally did so yesterday. They made mistakes on the field and missed opportunities. There was that bloody awful confusion between Behardien and Duminy in the second last over and those missed run out opportunities. There were also some questionable decisions around team selection and why on earth an in-form Abbott was left out. But they did not take a lead and throw it away because they cracked under pressure.

If anything, they stepped up when the pressure on them was escalated. When they were dealt a cruel blow by the rain and the overs were reduced, David Miller showed his Big Match Temperament and performed. When the Black Caps were in control of the run chase, AB de Villiers flung himself around the field like a persistent cartoon character trying to save the world, but the universe was conspiring against him. He and his teammates were desperate to win, not only for themselves but for the fans back home too. "We play this game to make a difference in a nation's hearts. We didn't do that, we didn't achieve that. It hurts quite a bit," the captain said in his post-match press conference.

The team was also desperate to shirk the 'chokers' label and they will likely feel that they failed to do so in Auckland. But he can be assured that we the fans know that those boys left everything on the field in Eden Park. They played with heart and with passion. We saw that in Morkel's tears and it was written on du Plessis's face. It was also evident in Miller's swagger and Steyn's determination. They didn't choke - they lost an excruciatingly tight game by the tiniest of margins.

That emotionally laden 'c' word has been replaced by others - like 'courage' and 'commitment'. Our Proteas can be proud of that.

_Mandy Wiener is a freelance journalist and author working for _ Eyewitness News . Follow her on Twitter: @mandywiener

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