Since the last World Cup, when they initially looked as slick as a lounge lizard and as obdurate as a nightclub bouncer, they have become formidable. It was South Africa, not Sri Lanka, who were hot favourites for that trophy, but five straight group wins were followed by a disastrous quarter-final marked by faulty selection and several moments of madness. West Indies won it by 19 runs.
For three years South Africa have been purging themselves. Between that defeat in March 1996 and the final match of a series against New Zealand in March 1999, they played 73 completed one-dayers and won no fewer than 56 of them. That is an extraordinary 76 per cent success rate unmatched by any other side.
Of the 13 tournaments those matches embraced, South Africa won nine and lost two in the final. They are now the only country to have beaten all the others more often than they have been defeated by them. Their preparations have been wholly geared to this tournament. In addition, they have players who are eminently suited to the conditions they are likely to encounter in England - actually they have players who are good enough to prosper anywhere - and had a largely successful rehearsal here only a year ago.
If the visionary coach, Bob Woolmer, and the unflappable captain, Hansie Cronje (who has, remarkably, played in all of their official one-day internationals since the last World Cup), have navigated the course it has been followed impeccably by their charges. If they are a close team because they have spent so much time together, their unity is heightened by the devout Christianity which prevails among most of the players.
South Africa are said to lack personalities but they have stars, a cluster of glittering ones. Most of them either bat excellently and bowl well or bowl excellently and bat well or, in the case of Jonty Rhodes, bat excellently and field as though in heaven.
South Africa should be comfortable favourites. Australia are as powerful as they have ever been at this form of the game, Pakistan can reach staggering heights, England enjoy home advantage, but none of them have had such a long build-up, or possess such impressive parts, which add up to a sum still more considerable.
This is a long way from suggesting that Cronje's hands are already on the trophy and that the winners' cheque for $300,000 may as well be converted to krugerrands now. South Africa have to be wary, in particular, of two phantoms who will lurk on their shoulders throughout.
The first may be the more difficult to cast off. It is the simple burden of responsibility that they, more than any side in this seventh World Cup, have to win it to keep the home fires burning, or rather to avoid cricket at home going up in flames. This is, of course, only South Africa's third World Cup because they were unwelcome at the first four as sporting pariahs created by apartheid. When their political system was at last overthrown they were swiftly granted entry to the 1992 World Cup. It almost became the most romantic of expeditions until, infamously, they were denied, by the ridiculous rain rules, from having a realistic chance to qualify for the final. Needing 22 to win off 13 balls the weather intervened and left them to make 21 off one. Their painstakingly planned revenge in 1996 was also to falter.
And now they are saddled with domestic disharmony. The first flush of romance sparked by the end of apartheid has dissipated. It is an open secret that some members of the South African board are unhappy about the lack of non-white faces in the team. The selectors would maintain that they are only picking the best team and that changing the imbalance will take time. But if their largely caucasian squad returns without winning at Lord's on 20 June the movement for change will become overwhelming. "There is grave unrest and it is quite frightening," said an anonymous official close to the team. "We have to win or otherwise the team will be torn apart and the evolutionary change that we have been seeking will be cast aside. Win it and there is something to show and we can continue to make steady progress, ensuring that black players get a chance on merit."
The players will know of the machinations, they will be aware that their future is on the line. It is an encumbrance which complicates matters and it may weigh them down.
The other, looming spectre is the knowledge that they can blow it. True, the 1996 quarter-final against West Indies was an extreme example - and on the day any one-dayer can be lost - but there have been others even during their splendid sequence since. They will not need to be reminded that Australia have frequently been their scourge. In early 1997 South Africa were 2-1 up in a seven-match series and then 4-2 down. The following year in the Carlton & United Series in Australia they qualified for the finals by beating Australia in all four group matches and in the first of the three finals. Australia, however, won the next two.
So, they must be vigilant. But anybody suggesting that under the severest pressure they can be brittle - in this country, allowing England to draw the Old Trafford Test last summer from a hopeless position - might have to re-think. During the winter, in both Test and one-dayers they swept aside West Indies and accounted for New Zealand.
In Jacques Kallis, Shaun Pollock and Lance Klusener, the South Africans have an enviable resource. For now, they are coming up with all-rounders the way the Caribbean used to produce lethal fast bowlers. Kallis has a batting average of 40, a bowling average of 30 and an economy rate of 4.79. Klusener's figures are 39, 28 and 4.9 and Pollock's are 29, 23 and 3.89 These are telling numbers.
They do not possess a truly world- class individual batsman - unless Darryl Cullinan is finally fulfilling all that he promised - but their tail wags furiously and frequently, and wins matches by itself if necessary. In Herschelle Gibbs they appear to have found Gary Kirsten's opening partner, in Rhodes they possess the catalyst for all they do in the field. In Allan Donald and Pollock they have individuals to win matches.
Above all South Africa are a team. They will take some beating.Reuse content