TO win in the World Twenty20 tonight at Trent Bridge England must overcome both the favourites and history. It is a potent combination of obstacles and considering that it is also too early in the tournament for South Africa to perform their usual trick of choking, it may require something extraordinary for the hosts to prevail.
England are not as bad as they appeared in the opening match of this tournament against the Netherlands, when they lost by six wickets, and probably not as good as they were made to look by Pakistan in the second when they won by 48 runs. They are somewhere in between, a work in progress without knowing quite where they are heading, at least in the shortest form of the game.
South Africa have nudged ahead of the holders India as favourites to win the competition, which in their case is always bad news. For tournament after tournament going back a decade, South Africa have made a complete porridge of proceedings when victory or qualification was being handed out on a silver platter.
Take the inaugural World Twenty20 in 2007, to name only the most recent example of their tendency to head for the hills, or at least the nearest pavilion, when the heat is on. Such had been their dominance in previous matches that all South Africa required in response to India's 153 to nail a semi-final place was 126. They did not need to do anything as pressurised as winning, merely lose by no more more than 27 runs. They lost by 37 and went out.
Their estimable captain, Graeme Smith who has been doing the job for six long years now and has grown into it like a benevolent despot nurturing both his throne and his people, insisted yesterday that this is a new South Africa.
"We control our emotions very well now," he said. "We are tactically astute and calm under pressure and we would rather look at executing good skills than get into scrambles that don't really need to be there.
"Over the last few years we have travelled to pretty much every continent and won. The side has a great balance between experience and youth now. The talent is there, it is just about harnessing it now."
South Africa look the real deal. They overwhelmed Scotland in their first match and came back to beat New Zealand after being restricted to 128, the sign of a team believing it can win from any position. In the England camp, naturally, the feeling will be that Scotland, as the weakest side around, were ready to be pummeled and that being bowled out so cheaply showed that South Africa were, as usual, vulnerable.
Not that they have ever paraded these weaknesses against England. True, they were beaten 4-0 in the one-day series between the sides last summer when England responded to the novel promptings of their new captain, Kevin Pietersen, but they could never conceal the feeling that having won the Test rubber nothing else mattered. It was not that they were still hung over, they were still drunk with success.
But in major tournament play, England have not beaten South Africa since the World Cup of 1992. That was in the infamous World Cup semi-final when, pre-Duckworth Lewis, South Africa were left, after a rain delay, to score 19 runs from one ball having received two overs fewer than England. Since then, in three matches in the World Cup, two in the Champions Trophy and one in the World T20, South Africa have won at a canter each time.
An improbable win tonight in Nottingham would significantly increase England's chances of reaching the semi-finals. Their other opponents in the Super Eights are India, who are almost as pre-eminent as South Africa, and the unpredictable West Indies, who are beginning to show signs that Twenty20 suits them.
Paul Collingwood, England's captain, has not only this to negotiate but also the suspicion that he may not be an astute leader. He looked perplexed at times against Netherlands and although matters were much improved against Pakistan he did not exactly fill his audience with confidence when he said afterwards that his bowlers had virtually captained themselves. The unkind might have said that they needed to.
But Collingwood has made a considerable virtue out of being unsung and under-rated throughout his career. He can take it, as yesterday he took Shane Warne's latest comments which fell some way short of being a ringing endorsement. Warne and Collingwood have some previous in Test cricket: Warne has famously questioned Collingwood's right to the MBE he received and Collingwood has been vitriolic at times in sledging Warne, not always with notable success.
In his newspaper column yesterday, Warne said of his old adversary's captaincy: "You need to get funky at times, throw a bit of caution to the wind and show a bit of flair and imagination. I don't think that Collingwood has that. His fielding positions always seem a little basic to me."
To which Collingwood gamely replied: "Listen, I'm going to get a lot of stick off him this summer – I know that for a fact. We had a ding-dong out in the middle of the last Ashes series and I'm the kind of person who wants to compete with him. But I'll just have to grin and bear it because I can't say anything back to him now."
Twenty20 is not about sledging, however. It is about speed of thought and action, of moving fielders quickly and appropriately, of changing bowlers and knowing precisely where bowlers should be bowling. Collingwood must be at his sharpest tonight against Smith, whose side have abundant respect for him.
It may be that one of Ravi Bopara or Pietersen will have to fire for England, who will almost certainly go in with two spinners again. South Africa look strong and confident in all departments – and England's best chance may be the truism that in Twenty20 anybody can win on the night.
Super Eights: Teams and schedule
Group E: India, England, West Indies, South Africa.
Group F: Pakistan, Ireland, Sri Lanka, New Zealand.
Today: New Zealand v Ireland, England v South Africa (Trent Bridge).
Tomorrow: Pakistan v Sri Lanka, India v West Indies (Lord's).
Sat: West Indies v South Africa, New Zealand v Pakistan (The Oval).
Sun: Ireland v Sri Lanka, India v England (Lord's).
Mon: England v West Indies, Pakistan v Ireland (The Oval).
Tues: New Zealand v Sri Lanka, South Africa v India (Trent Bridge).
18 & 19 Jun: Semi-finals (Trent Bridge and The Oval).
21 Jun: Final (Lord's).
South Africa have recorded the tournament's highest innings total, against Scotland.