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Expectation still the enemy for South Africa at World Cup

February 6, 2015

CAPE TOWN, South Africa (AP) — As South Africa heads to the World Cup as one of the favorites to win the title, there’s an all-too-familiar distraction shadowing the team.

Few critics doubt the quality of the players and the balance in the South Africa squad.

Yet once again expectations are being tempered by the anxiety around South Africa’s ability to overcome the demons of its World Cup history.

South Africa has gone into each of the last four World Cups as a highly-rated contender. In 2003, as co-host, the team misread a Duckworth-Lewis table and tied a must-win group game against Sri Lanka to be eliminated. On the other three occasions, the South Africans maintained an unwanted record of never winning a World Cup knockout game.

Each failure has added a fresh scar to the wounded World Cup psyche.

Graeme Smith, who took over as captain at the age of 22 after South Africa’s failed campaign at the 2003 World Cup and retired last year with the team ranked No. 1, acknowledged in a recent Cricinfo online panel forum that the choker tag was irritating.

“Unfortunately it’s something they’ll never get rid of until we go on and win a tournament,” Smith told the Cricinfo forum last month. “I think it’s always been a light-hearted thing, but as an individual when you get to the knockout stage, the amount of times you get asked that question, the amount of times you read it, the amount of times people say it to you, whether it becomes an internal pressure. I don’t know.

“It gets thrown down the South African team’s throats in this tournament so often that you can’t get away from it.”

Smith said the solution was simple: “It’s about dealing with it, it’s about saying, “Look we haven’t won a tournament yet, we haven’t won a knockout game yet but it’s about facing up and winning.’”

West Indies allrounder Darren Sammy summed up the sentiment from outside after the recent ODI series in South Africa.

“I don’t think I have had a World Cup where South Africa has not been favorites, and this time it’s no different,” Sammy said. “But in a World Cup, if you play three good matches in the first round, you are into the knockout stages and with that, cricket is played on the day and anything is possible.”

South Africa put in a string of convincing performances to beat West Indies 4-1 in the five-match series last month that was a microcosm of its World Cup history.

The South Africans dominated four of the games, but in the one match where they were put under pressure, the second-string bowling attack failed to handle the heat.

While that raised some concern about the depth in the bowling ranks, there can be no questioning the strength of the batting unit, led by Hashim Amla and captain AB de Villiers.

Amla has notched three hundreds and two fifties in his last seven ODI innings, while de Villiers has six 50s and two hundreds in his last 11 knocks, including the 31-ball century that shattered the record for the fastest in the history of the game.

Perhaps equally important have been the performances of middle-order batsman David Miller and backup batsman Rilee Rossouw, who both struck maiden centuries during the series against the West Indies.

The harsh field restrictions currently in place, which permit just four fielders outside the ring, mean that this World Cup will favor the batsmen. South Africa coach Russell Domingo has addressed this by drafting former South Africa paceman Charl Langeveldt, a specialist death bowler in his time, into the coaching staff to assist the seamers.

But when it comes to the crunch, the challenge for South Africa at the World Cup will once again be a mental one.

“We’re trying to play down expectations as much as we can,” Domingo said. “It’s difficult but we’re looking at it as just another series that is coming up and another opportunity for us to continue playing great cricket.”

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