Pressure on SA as Champions Trophy begins
The pressure will be on South Africa and off Sri Lanka when they clash at Centurion Park on Tuesday in the opening 2009 ICC Champions Trophy fixture.cricket Updated: Sep 20, 2009 13:55 IST
The pressure will be on South Africa and off Sri Lanka when they clash at Centurion Park on Tuesday in the opening 2009 ICC Champions Trophy fixture.
South Africa need the cup to confirm what the world rankings have been saying for some time - that they are a class act when it comes to one-day international cricket.
But playing hosts in a sporting event is a double-edged sword with victories galvanising a nation and defeats having the opposite effect, especially in a country like South Africa where expectations are invariably sky high.
The least expected of the Graeme Smith-led Proteas is that they qualify for the October 5 final and many South Africans would dream that bitter rivals Australia provide the opposition and are conquered.
While Sri Lanka are good enough to win the 14-day mini-World Cup, it is defending champions Australia, South Africa and India who are most commonly mentioned as potential winners of the two-million-dollar top prize.
Supreme spinner Muttiah Muralitharan needs no introduction and fast medium-pacer Nuwan Kulasekara sat atop the world bowling rankings last week with his famous team-mate sixth.
However, batting could be the Sri Lankan Achilles heel with senior figure Mahela Jayawardene conceding they have been "patchy and inconsistent" in that department at ODI level.
Even minus injured Herschelle Gibbs, the Proteas boast a formidable array of run-getters with Smith, veteran Jacques Kallis, AB de Villiers and JP Duminy in the vanguard.
Add the pace and swing of Dale Steyn, Wayne Parnell and Kallis and the spin of Johan Botha and Roelof van der Merwe, who captured four wickets in a warm-up win over the West Indies, and there are solid foundations for optimism.
Pessimists will raise the word that makes Smith see red - chokers - and also express alarm that the team is going into the second biggest ODI tournament after the World Cup without a competitive fixture since April.
The 'chokers' tag emanates from reaching eight ICC semi-finals and winning just one - by 92 runs against Sri Lanka in the inaugural Champions Trophy 11 years ago.
Inspired by the batting of late skipper Hansie Cronje and a five-wicket Kallis haul, South Africa lifted the trophy with a comfortable victory over West Indies in Bangladesh.
Since then they have departed at the semi-finals stage three times and failed to get even that far once - five years ago in England they came off second best against the men from the Caribbean in a group decider.
"We have had a good break and the squad is feeling fresh and ready to go. I think freshness may be an important factor in a tournament involving a lot of cricket in a short time," is the Smith retort to fears of rustiness.
Opposite number Kumar Sangakkara agrees: "Every team in South Africa is a professional unit and whether they have played recently or not won't matter because you are always in training and up to the challenge of playing."