South Africa don’t deserve the label when they were going all out to beat NZ, nor will it apply to the loser at the MCG on Sunday

You may have heard the name Derek Jeter. Pin-up shortstop for the New York Yankees for the best part of two decades. One of the greatest clutch hitters of his or any other generation.

Except he wasn't.

Not the last bit anyway. As his career neared its conclusion last year, one of those pesky stats geeks broke down his career to the nth degree and discovered that, lo and behold, Jeter's hitting numbers in "clutch" situations were no better than average and, on some metrics, worse.

Being on a Yankees team for 19 years that was always competitive meant he hit in the clutch a lot and he had a lot of big hits, but he also had a lot of misses. But the reputation stuck and, when it comes to things like renegotiating contracts and dragging in endorsement deals, being known as "Mr Clutch" is no bad thing.


Flip the concept of clutch on its head and you have sport's ugliest, most gratuitous word: choke.

Like Jeter, once you have a reputation for choking, you don't easily shake it.

The All Blacks were never beaten in World Cups, they choked. Likewise, the Proteas don't get beaten in cricket World Cups, they choke. The Black Caps, losers of six World Cup semifinals, for once didn't choke.

It's such a convenient, catch-all term, but it does the whole idea of team sport a massive disservice. This is not golf - one man against a course; it is mano a mano, team v team.

Take the All Blacks for example. Because they've won 76 per cent of tests they've played, people tend to forget they've usually lost the other 24 per cent. They also forget that every time the other team takes the field, there's between 15 and 23 players desperately trying to stop the All Blacks doing as they please.

History has shown that more than 20 per cent of the time that tactic works. Yet when it works in a World Cup, they might be surprised to learn that a number of those watching are not prepared to give them any credit - it was the All Blacks that choked.

The same thought dawned on me when watching South Africa lose in agonising circumstances on Tuesday. The magic of television can be beautiful and brutal and it showed both sides within seconds.

First there was Grant Elliott, a man who in a single pull-cum-slog went from journeyman to genius, offering an empathetic hand to the man whose heart he broke, Dale Steyn. Beautiful. Shortly after, the camera panned to the outfield and there was Morne Morkel, a giant of a man, reduced to a shrivelled ball of tears. You want an image to show what high-performance sport means to its athletes, take the one of Morkel with you. Brutal.


So Elliott, the victor, says an interesting thing in the wash-up. He reckons he left his chase too late, that he was two balls from an ignominious 78 not out, if there is such a thing. If Steyn was too good in those final two balls, would we be saying Elliott choked? Please say the answer is no.

Yet people are happy to throw that at the Proteas, who lost by a millimetre in a game some are describing as the greatest ODI of them all.

They didn't. Choking, surely, is when you freeze and don't want to be part of the battle. It's when you can't make a decision (as in, the oxygen to your brain is cut off). It's not when you're straining to win.

Mike Atherton, the former England captain and now a respected commentator and columnist on the game, point by point broke down every costly South African mistake in the field. He did not to prove they choked, but to disprove it. he made a persuasive argument. AB de Villiers didn't drop the World Cup when he failed to field a throw and run Corey Anderson out; the fact he ran from the circle at mid on to get to the stumps in time for the throw was close to a miracle.

JP Duminy didn't screw up the World Cup when he put Farhaan Behardien off as Elliott skied a ball late in the match. In that cauldron, with that much noise he made a mistake, but the important thing was he was bursting his lungs to try to get to the ball, not shying from the challenge.

South Africa lost because they were playing a team at the top of their game who were trying to beat them.

Which brings us across the Tasman to Melbourne, and the seething concrete cauldron that will be the MCG on Sunday evening.

New Zealand will be playing there against an opponent that, at the time of writing, was unknown.

This is a team that has reinvented itself, that has defied expectation and carried an ever-growing nation of supporters on the wildest ride. They might get outplayed on Sunday, they might even get badly outplayed - but they're not going to choke. Someone, however, might just come up clutch.

Kiwis in the clutch


Brendon McCullum in Christchurch: The tournament started at a drizzly Hagley Oval and the ball was seaming around crazily. Captain McCullum put the nerves to rest with a shredding 65 off 49 balls.


Kane Williamson six: After Trent Boult had somehow survived two Mitchell Starc thunderbolts, Williamson was left with little choice but to try to end the game quickly. Five needed, a six off Pat Cummins over long on will do nicely thanks.


Tim Southee cameo: Pretty much all Southee's bat was known for at the World Cup was missing a Starc yorker, but he redeemed himself with a six and a four and 12 not out to get New Zealand home in a surprisingly tricky run chase against Bangladesh at Hamilton.


Martin Guptill's big day out: When you're dropped early, you want to cash in, especially in a knockout match. How does 237 not out sound, then?


Grant Elliott six: No. More. Words. Needed.