Twenty years after they forged their reputation as chokers with that uncompleted run in the World Cup semifinal against Australia, the Proteas return to the original scene of the crime – England – eager to set straight not only their reputation as a team that can’t take pressure, but also to win their first Cricket World Cup.
Ottis Gibson’s men open their campaign with a game against the hosts and his former employers on Thursday.
While history has taught all South Africans that now is not the time for great expectations, it’s not too far-fetched to imagine that this may finally be the one they win. Here’s why:
The motto for the Proteas’ 1999 Cricket World Cup was “one run could make a difference”. Current Proteas coach Gibson has kept a safe distance from putting a pay-off line to this year’s journey, but based on his utterances last weekend, it may well be: “It’s still cricket.”
This is supposed to be a reminder to his charges that, while this may be a World Cup, it’s still the same sporting code at which they have beaten Sri Lanka, Australia and Pakistan in bilateral series over the past year or so.
Faf du Plessis
If ever there was a captain to drive said pragmatic approach, it would have to be Faf du Plessis.
Du Plessis says he has been the main instigator of the Proteas being open about pressure and how to deal with it, adding that, over the past year, they have been encouraging the players to play freely to rid them of the fear of failure that has bedevilled them during past World Cups.
The reason he is the best person for this is that, when the brown stuff hit the fan in the quarterfinal against New Zealand in 2011, Du Plessis was the lone Protea targeted by the Kiwis because he was fighting back instead of cowering in his corner.
No AB de Villiers
South Africa’s past failure to win the World Cup happened when they had arguably some of the greatest players in their teams.
Think Allan Donald, Jacques Kallis, Makhaya Ntini, Graeme Smith, Shaun Pollock, AB de Villiers. Big-name cricketers have done little to win the country a desperately coveted World Cup.
While it sounds counterintuitive to suggest that not having one of the best batsmen of his generation, De Villiers, in the Proteas team could help, it does mean that there’ll be no Mr 360 for the Proteas to outsource the burden of responsibility to.
They have underdog status
In the past, the Proteas have always gone into World Cups as one of the favourites.
This time around, not even an ardent Proteas fan can claim they are anything other than dark horses. India have been the best white ball team around for a while now, while the powerful England line-up – currently ranked number one in the world – has muscled its way into the conversation, and the return of Steve Smith and David Warner have strengthened the defending champions Australia’s bid to win it again.
Having the underdog status, the favourite place from which South African sports teams do their best work, could be in the Proteas’ favour.
They don’t have to play memorably to win
Thanks to the tied semifinal against Australia in 1999 and the 438-run game in 2006, also against the Aussies, the Proteas have probably already been involved in the top two one-day internationals in history so far.
Yet, for all that swag, they have nary a world title to show for it. Hopefully the penny drops that the perfect game won’t necessarily guarantee a world championship, so an adequate game on the day will do.