Battles for rankings and pride

Cricket: Teams have varied agendas at the ICC Champions Trophy

Different Ball Game: South Africa’s Makhaya Ntini at a practice session on Monday. AFP

Some 24 months ago, with a semifinal spot all but a cinch in a format that Pollock said offered ‘too little time to choke’, Graeme Smith’s men nonchalantly managed the impossible by snatching elimination at the Super Six stage in the inaugural World T20, also in their own backyard.

A third ICC event in this country is now no more than a few hours away, offering the perennially underachieving South Africans a great chance to shed the tag of ‘chokers’ that has accompanied them since their return from isolation in 1991.

The Champions Trophy, beginning at SuperSport Park here on Tuesday when the hosts take on formidable Sri Lanka, has provided the Proteas’ lone moment of glory in major competitions. Under Hansie Cronje, South Africa won the inaugural edition – then called the ICC Knockout – in Dhaka in 1998, an accomplishment that appears almost an aberration given their abysmal record in ICC tournaments before and since.

Inasmuch as Smith hates the word ‘chokers’, it’s a label he and his side will perforce have to live with unless they can gulf the seemingly insurmountable gap between extraordinary skills and ultimate triumph.

Notwithstanding their familiarity with conditions, South Africa can’t – and won’t – expect an easy ride this time around either. The world’s number one ranked one-day side is aware Australia and India are snapping at their heels, the top position having changed hands thrice in the last ten days, and that even a solitary moment with their guard down can trigger devastating consequences all over again.

Unlike the other seven teams, South Africa haven’t played any international cricket since the World T20 in England in June. Whilst that means they are fresh after a rare break extending beyond three months, they will also come into the competition somewhat cold and requiring to be at their best from the off.

Which, it must be stressed, is not the case with the Australians. The defending champions will fly in from England on Tuesday at the end of a long, long tour after a crushing 6-1 drubbing of the hosts, carrying confidence, momentum and self-belief with them. Pooled with India, Pakistan and a below-strength West Indies, Australia have every reason to believe the force is with them, even if the cricketing world isn’t entirely convinced the Aussies continue to be the force they used to be not so long back.

India have traversed the middle path between the two outfits expected to be their closest contenders, enjoying a two-month break after a short one-day series in the Caribbean but squeezing in three matches in Colombo just before the start of the Champions Trophy in an outing that fetched them their first title in a multi-nation tournament for over 18 months.

Having failed to progress beyond the preliminary stage in the last two editions, India’s Champions Trophy prospects have been revived by the brilliant early season form of Sachin Tendulkar, the return to one-day cricket of Rahul Dravid and the stated availability of Gautam Gambhir, the top three primed to set the ideal platform for the likes of captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni, his deputy Yuvraj Singh and Suresh Raina to build on.

It’s the bowlers, though, that will be under the spotlight. India’s bowlers have relished bowling in South Africa, and even if collectively their form in Colombo was anything but encouraging, a return to the nation where they won the World T20 two years ago should stoke the competitive juices in the likes of Rudra Pratap Singh, Praveen Kumar and Harbhajan Singh.

Pakistan remain dangerous floaters, as ever. Their World T20 triumph in England showed how good they can be when they are good, but in Sri Lanka, they also showed that when they are bad, they are really, really bad! Historically, Sri Lanka haven’t enjoyed travelling to this part of the world, but they are more dangerous than Pakistan because of their new-found consistency, allied with Tillakaratne Dilshan’s extraordinary top-order pyrotechnics.

England have much work ahead of them minus Kevin Pietersen and Andrew Flintoff, and especially after the Aussie lashing, while New Zealand’s hopes depend wholly on how quickly and often their batsmen, notably Brendon McCullum, Jesse Ryder and Ross Taylor, start firing. As for the West Indies – oh for a Gayle and a Bravo, or two!

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