With the weight of expectations missing this time around, Faf du Plessis-led South Africa still stand a chance despite not being among the favourites of the World Cup 2019
The last time South Africa left home fuelled by so little faith that they could win the World Cup, the world's largest democracy had a Prime Minister who spoke 17 languages.
PV Narasimha Rao — the man of the many tongues, Sanskrit and Spanish included — led India for almost five years, or until a day shy of two months after Sri Lanka, like Muhammad Ali before them, shook up the world.
Few imagined the Lankans would reach the final, much less beat Australia. But those believers would have numbered more than people who thought South Africa would be competitive on Asia's pitches. That Hansie Cronje's team made it as far as the quarter-finals, where they came unstuck against Brian Lara at his dancing, dashing, dazzling best, was in itself impressive.
Twenty-three years on from the 1996 World Cup, South Africa are again leaving home with their supporters' awkward silence hanging heavily in their ears.
That they no longer have AB de Villiers to dance, dash and dazzle in their cause is one big reason why. Something similar, to a lesser degree, is true regarding Morne Morkel's absence. But there's also Hashim Amla's unedifying form to consider — 92 runs in eight T20 innings for his domestic side and a gravely ill father aren't things to build a World Cup dream on — along with Kagiso Rabada's bad back and Dale Steyn's dodgy shoulder.
And something else is in the air, something sad and sorry. South Africans have grown weary of getting their hopes up every fours years only to have them dashed every four years. You would be forgiven for thinking Faf du Plessis shares their pessimism.
"All of us badly want to win a World Cup," he said some months ago. "But, for me as captain, it's important to make sure that the players don't feel like they have to be supermen to try and win that tournament. They just have to go there and try and be the best they can be.
"In the past, we've been guilty of feeling like you need to do something special on the day, something remarkable. That expectation can put a lot of weight on your shoulders.
"My chats with the team have been around trying to get rid of that, trying to free them up — more mentally than anything else.
"We've played some really good cricket in tournaments but we've always had moments where the pressure got too much for us. It's about how you deal with it, how you cope with it.
"I hope that, by talking to players and giving them a 'how' for getting out of it, perhaps when we get there they'll do that better.
"We're going with, I suppose, less pressure on us in terms of the expectations of winning it. It's pretty clear England and India are the favourites. But that's a nice way to go there — going there and giving it a shot and whatever happens happens.
"We've gone to tournaments where we've felt like we've had the strongest team on paper, but you don't win games of cricket on paper. We are not the strongest team on paper."
History bears du Plessis out. The near miracle of 1992, when South Africa team came in from the cold after 22 years of isolation to advance to the semi-final, where England were favoured by the ancient rain rules, is barely remembered. So, too, what happened four years later.
What remains uppermost for many South Africans is the catastrophe of 1999, when their juggernaut of a team found a way to tie with Australia a semi-final that at that point was difficult not to win.
South Africa went to that tournament with the strongest team on paper or anything else their names could have been written on. And until the moment Lance Klusener and Allan Donald tangoed into a tangle and a runout, they were bound for glory.
The moment still clangs loudly in the national consciousness, a hangover that just won't let up, and a gloomy point of view: if they couldn't win the damn thing with that team they will never win it.
That, of course, was the last World Cup to be played in England, where the South Africans have rarely been at their best in ODIs. Indeed, of all the countries where they play regularly, their won/lost ratio there — 0.818 — is their worst save only for Sri Lanka. By contrast, their success rate is 2.647 at home, 1.285 in Australia and 1.277 in India.
South Africa's best batting effort in England, a decent 328/5 against the hosts in Southampton in May 2017, is nonetheless down in 38th place on their list of highest totals. Their players have scored 179 centuries in the 610 ODIs they have contested on 104 grounds in 16 countries around the globe — and only five of those hundreds have been scored in England.
Twenty-two names down the order of the best bowling performances by a South African in an ODI the first one in England pops up: Shaun Pollock's 5/36 against Australia at Edgbaston in June 1999. That's right — in the World Cup semi-final. And look how well that turned out.
That South Africa's batsmen aren't as successful in England as they are in other countries doesn't take much explaining. They grow up with the ball seaming this way and that, and looming at their throats. But they aren't prepared for the way the ball swings in England, and their meaty strokeplay is betrayed by a wicked curve through the air.
Why their bowlers haven't been able to dominate there makes much less sense. South Africa bristle with either the best or almost the best battery of seamers in the game, year in and year out. That they can't crack it in England as often as they should is a mystery nearly as baffling as the fact that they have yet to win a World Cup.
This year, with belief in their ability to change that narrative at a low, the pressure is off. They don't have de Villiers, neither Amla at anything like his best, and Rabada and Steyn look fragile.
But they do have bona fide stars like Quinton de Kock and Imran Tahir, and in Andile Phehlukwayo a fearless allrounder. And they have du Plessis, a captain who believes in facing the truth head-on. Might that be the piece their puzzle has been missing all these years? And, now that they don't have the best team at the World Cup, will having the best captain be enough to turn their fortunes around?
That's a big ask in any language, regardless of whether it was spoken by PV Narasimha Rao.
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