There's a huge billboard that immediately catches the eye as you drive in to Johannesburg. The stark two-worded message might confirm visitors' worst fears that they have arrived in the new Wild West, but South African sport has never been known for its subtle approach. "Die Aussies," the advert screams. On closer inspection, in much smaller print, comes the explanation. "Available in both English and Afrikaans."
It's a radio station drumming up the World Cup, the word "die" (pronounced "dee") meaning "the" in Afrikaans, one of the country's 11 official languages. An example of the in-your-face manner South Africa plays sport.
Allan Donald, nicknamed "White Lightning" but whose days of sending down unplayable thunderbolts are seemingly behind him, epitomises that attitude.
"We are doing this for Hansie Cronje. We are dedicating this World Cup to Hansie, unash-amedly so," Donald repeated last week in a comment that brought a swift rebuke from the president of the United Cricket Board, Percy Sonn. "We don't want players winning for individuals, we want them to do it for all the people of South Africa," came the official's reply.
Yet the shadow of Cronje looms large over a side who the country genuinely expect to win the World Cup. "It's our job to get them here, it's yours to send them back," is another advertising billboard, this time that of the official carrier of the competition, South African Airways. Alongside the text is the face of Shaun Pollock, the man who followed Cronje as captain. No pressure then.
Donald, a 36-year-old veteran of 161 one-day internationals (271 wickets), in his fourth World Cup and held together by more Elastoplast than you will find in a hospital ward, will be the man Pollock turns to when the going gets tough. Once a tearaway quick, who even on the wrong side of 30 reduced England to 2 for 4 on a Wanderers greentop, the Free State and Warwickshire icon has mellowed. But his desire remains.
"We will make the [South African] public proud of us. We have a very good side this time and we genuinely feel we can go all the way," Donald says. "In 1999 we had the best team in the competition, by a mile. Then, in the semi-finals, it all went wrong..." his voice trailing away.
The moment "it all went wrong" is burnt into the memory of every South African and only World Cup victory on home soil will dull the senses, while never erasing it. Sport is taken seriously here, and that radio advertising billboard is a reminder that Australia remain the eternal enemy.
Donald, famously, was at the crease when he and Lance Klusener attempted a single that would beat Australia and ensure passage into the final. Donald, by general consensus, was the one who cracked, dropping his bat and making the 22 yards to the other end of the pitch seem like a trek across the Outback. Only on this occasion he was not back.
"I didn't hear the call," Donald has consistently said on reflection. Perhaps, like so many secrets that went with his close friend Cronje the moment his plane crashed into a mountain range last year, we will never know what went on in the middle on the afternoon of 17 June 1999 at Edgbaston.
Given the form and calibre of player available for Pollock to call on, and notwithstanding the fact that there are many who feel the five players of colour in the squad of 15 is bowing to affirmative action pressures, it is of little surprise that South Africa are second favourites – behind those Aussies, of course – in the official betting.
Winning is supposed to become a habit, but Donald, a bit more sedate in his run-up to the crease but with an old head on over-worked shoulders, puts an interesting spin on the theory. "In 1999 we quickly built our momentum. There were some soft touches in the early part of the competition and we held a number of team meetings to decide whether we should rest some players or play our best team throughout. We chose the latter. But what that does is make you think too much." Which has been damaging to countless talents around the globe.
"You win six or so matches in a row and, privately, you start to wonder. The law of averages dictates that you are going to lose at some stage. When is that defeat going to come? it would be better early in the tournament than later, but when you go through unbeaten..."
Pollock's team have nothing to fear from the opposition. Not even "die Australians". But the evidence of that 1999 semi-final is compelling: do South Africa have what it takes to succeed? "Yes... we do," Donald offers. "There's no question that the three inches here [digit and thumb pressed against his forehead] will determine the world champions."
To this end South Africa embarked on a three-day camp in the Drakensburg mountains last week in a team-building exercise. The tasks were similar to those on television's Survivor series. All with the intention of ensuring the minds of the players don't go soft under the harsh African sun.
Donald, dropped off miles away from base camp, was asked to find his way back, but couldn't. Should his compass let him down in the World Cup, South Africa will surely again lose theirs. For supporters of the team, and country, the thought is too ghastly to contemplate.Reuse content