Cape Town – There is one, minor upfront comfort South African supporters can bank as the eight-nation ICC Champions Trophy begins in the United Kingdom on Thursday: the Proteas aren’t in the pool of death.
That’s more realistically Group A, where England lock horns with Australia, New Zealand and Bangladesh for just two tickets to semi-finals.
The host nation will be tipped to progress with oldest enemies the Aussies, but the Black Caps’ knack of punching fiercely above their weight – they’re the CWC 2015 runners-up to their near-neighbours, let’s not forget – makes them a dangerous proposition for advancement in the appealingly compressed tournament, too.
On paper, at least, Group B is the more “straightforward” one (even if that expression is best used with some caution): it would be wisest to imagine that presently No 1-ranked South Africa will get through alongside other traditional limited-overs heavyweights and defending champions India.
It is also no bad thing that the Proteas, striving to end a multinational tournament drought stretching back to 1998 for them, tackle the three major Subcontinent outfits – the others in their quartet being Pakistan and Sri Lanka – in English conditions which may, depending on the vagaries of the British weather, be slightly more seam- than batting-friendly at times.
Broadly speaking, they should be more instinctively comfortable if there is bounce and movement to be had, with their attack especially relishing that and the batsmen suitably adaptable.
That said, if the sun shines meaningfully, belters are likely, whilst gradual wear and tear on the tournament surfaces may also slow them up sufficiently to make the Asia-based teams pretty chuffed with the environment even if they aren’t already.
Here is a helpful navigation, for Sport24 readers, of the Proteas’ course through the group phase …
GAME ONE: SRI LANKA (The Oval, Saturday June 3, 11:30 SA time)
Group threat level to SA: Fairly modest
General assessment: There may well be lingering fallout mentally, in the islanders’ midst, from the one-sided last summer in South Africa, and few pundits will be too brazenly backing Sri Lanka to go a long way. They sport far fewer of the traditional heavyweight surnames of extended times gone by, which is part of the problem. That said, captain Angelo Mathews and Upul Tharanga are proud, established competitors and men like Kusal Mendis and Dinesh Chandimal don’t mess about in their batting. Regrettably absent from our shores a few months ago, the Proteas should get a bit of a hurry-up from a certain Lasith Malinga, the eccentric-action fast bowler with toe-crush yorker possibilities and vast knowledge of the requirements at advanced stages of the opposition innings. Nevertheless, I’ll venture this much: if SA botch this first fixture, the heat is suddenly an awful lot more intense for them to reach the KO phase.
Recent form: Ranked seventh on the ICC ladder, the ‘Lankans are fragile at present, coming off a most recent 1-1 home series outcome against Bangladesh (one no-result), and that 0-5 clean sweep humiliation in South Africa. Before that, they did win a triangular in Zimbabwe, also featuring West Indies.
SA ODI record against them: Played 65, won 34, lost 29 (one tie, one no-result), for a win percentage of 53.90. The Proteas have only won four ODIs out of 19 in Sri Lanka itself, but do lead 10-8 when it comes to neutral venues. It is 1-1 between them in the UK, with the SA win coming in the lone ICC major-tournament clash between them on that terrain – by 89 runs at the 1999 World Cup in Northampton, where SA posted 199/9 (Daryll Cullinan 49) and then bundled out their foes for 110 with Messrs Klusener, Pollock and Kallis sharing eight wickets between them.
GAME TWO: PAKISTAN (Edgbaston, Wednesday June 7, 14:30 SA time)
Group threat level to SA: Moderate
General assessment: You get a powerful sense that Pakistan actually pride themselves on being so hard to fathom. They have a long-held reputation for “sublime one day, sickly the next” … and not an awful lot has changed of late. There’s a serious void in calmness and street-wisdom now that both the admirable Younis Khan (265 ODI caps) and Misbah-ul-Haq (162) have ridden off into distinguished sunsets, and versatile limited-overs customers like Mohammad Hafeez and Shoaib Malik have probably seen better days. But that doesn’t stop Pakistan from unleashing splendid, curveball-type youthful customers on unsuspecting foes – keep an eye on 22-year-old thrill machine Babar Azam -- or playing out of their skins when it is least anticipated. The pace arsenal is suitably varied, with a sudden, damaging four-for always a possibility from the likes of a Wahab Riaz or Mohammad Amir.
Recent form: Ranked eighth, the Pakistanis have been patchy (WLWLW in five most recent series terms), almost true to custom. They do come off a pretty heartening 2-1 triumph against West Indies in the Caribbean, although 1-4 results in both Australia and England serve as a slightly glaring correction, don’t they? Still, they have also cleaned up the West Indians 3-0 in their adopted United Arab Emirates home, and beat Ireland 1-0 on the road.
SA ODI record against them: Played 72, won 47, lost 24 (one no-result), for a win percentage of 66.19. What is striking is that the Proteas have an even stronger record against Pakistan at neutral venues (21 victories out of 28, for 75%), although that includes the UAE as their foes have not been able to play proper home games for some time. SA have also won both bilateral encounters in England: by three wickets in the 1999 World Cup (Trent Bridge) and by 67 runs at the last edition of the Champions Trophy in 2013 (Edgbaston, as looming again).
GAME THREE: INDIA (The Oval, Sunday June 11, 11:30 SA time)
Group threat level to SA: Most severe of trio
General assessment: England is not their most treasured habitat, of course, but the very fact that India won the last edition of the tournament in the same country (London, Birmingham and Cardiff remain the identical host cities this time, too) also serves bright notice of their adaptive abilities these days. If not “there” again, the Indians ought to be at least thereabouts at the business end. Virat Kohli, third on the ODI batting rankings, leads the usual array of dashing stroke-players, even if there is a long-in-the-tooth look now to stalwarts like MS Dhoni and Yuvraj Singh. Off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin is a wily character who bats with zest as well, whilst the pace attack is increasingly multi-skilled and transportable, even if arguably still a little shy of certain others for the “serious bodily harm” factor.
Recent form: The Indians have won three series on the trot since being thumped 4-1 in Australia in the 2015/16 season. Zimbabwe were trounced 3-0 in southern Africa, whilst productive home outcomes were seeing off New Zealand 3-2 and England 2-1.
SA ODI record against them: Played 76, won 45, lost 28 (three no-results), for a win percentage of 61.64. The Proteas are pretty competitive against the Indian one-day juggernaut even in India, where the hosts only lead by a tight 15-13. South Africa also hold the aces 11-8 in neutral countries, although the Indians have won three of five clashes in the UK (including Wales and Ireland). In terms of ICC events there, India prevailed at the last Champions Trophy in Cardiff, their 331/7 eclipsing the brave enough SA reply of 305, although CWC 1999 honours at Hove went the way of the Proteas by four wickets as Jacques Kallis (96) led the surge past India’s 253/5.
*Rob Houwing will be at the Champions Trophy for Sport24 from Friday. Also follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing