Belief beats expectation

Goolam Rajah never did enjoy the limelight. He never sought any attention, let alone gratitude or credit for the team’s successes when he was the full-time manager of the Proteas for almost a decade and now that he has been allowed to concentrate on what he does best, organise the logistics, he is at his happiest.

He has seen it all before. All, that is, apart from a World Cup victory. This is his fifth campaign and he says that he knows why everyone is so relaxed. “The difference this time? Zero expectation. There is a big difference between belief and expectation,” he says, momentarily concerned that he might sound negative. “Everyone believes we can win the World Cup, but nobody came here with a sense of destiny. We’ve been through that in 1999, 2003 and again four years ago.”

In many ways he’s right. The Proteas have been strong favourites in each of the last three campaigns and burdened with an outrageous and immodest sense of entitlement which was personified by the late Percy Sonn who, as president of the United Cricket Board in 2003, told anybody who would listen that South Africa’s “time had come”.

And from the moment it was announced, six years ago, that Asia would host the 2011 event it was made perfectly clear to the mid-2000s generation that they’d better win in the Caribbean in 2007 because they had “no chance of winning on the subcontinent”.

All of this helped enormously to remove both the baggage and burden on the class of 2011, but two further factors have been even more important. The first was the selection of men like Morne van Wyk, Imran Tahir and Faf du Plessis, surely the most experienced “inexperienced” trio of international cricketers in South Africa’s history.

They have been gulping down the whole experience like men who never thought they would ever taste it—which they didn’t, of course. Like the youngsters and other first-timers, their eyes have been wide open—not with wonder, but so they can see and learn as much as possible.

The final piece in the puzzle came when both the local and international media concluded that, this time, South Africa really did not merit being ranked among the favourites. Like gamblers who spend an hour putting all their chips on the same number at the roulette table, they finally walked away, muttering something about “no chance”.

Process driven vs results driven
The attempt to be “process driven” rather than “results driven” in sport has been around as long as the Soda-Stream and toasted sandwich maker, but it’s a lot simpler in theory than reality; bottles still explode and the cheese melts and sticks to the sides. Not with this team, however. Not yet, anyway.

“We really haven’t thought about results at any stage, that’s the truth,” insists Jacques Kallis. “We all know what to do and we know that if we take care of our preparation and remain ‘aware’ of the situation in the match and what is required, then the result will take care of itself.”

To be fair, that was easy in the group stage when there was always a second chance. South Africa has a long and proud history of winning more series than any other team in the past 15 years—when there was always another game in three days’ time to correct mistakes. Can the “processes” remain intact now that the knockout matches have begun?

“We’ll see,” says Kallis with the spontaneous and genuine grin of a man who, like Rajah, is at his fifth World Cup and knows only too well that they have not remained intact under pressure in the past. “It’s like an exam. If you’ve done your studying then you’re confident when you walk in to write the paper. That’s all you can do.”

Friday’s quarterfinal against New Zealand is full of potential pitfalls—every game is when the other six teams left in the tournament are the world’s best. But South Africa appeared to be as well prepared—and therefore confident—as they could possibly be in the days leading up to the game. Small and apparently insignificant details are still important, however.

The tournament organisers have gone to a lot of effort, making posters containing messages of encouragement from all the teams’ homelands and placing them on the walls of the change rooms before each game. Those from South Africa read: “We know you will make us proud. We know you will win it this time.”

Discreetly and without fuss, and with apologies to the organisers, Rajah quietly took them down and folded them away—to be viewed, perhaps, at a later date. “We’ve been there before. We don’t need to be reminded of the finishing line again. The race has only just begun,” he said.