We have been here before. Despite losing out to England in the warm-up series, South Africa head into an International Cricket Council (ICC) tournament as the number one ranked team.
To illustrate the side’s status, AB de Villiers, Kagiso Rabada and Imran Tahir occupy the top batting position and the top two bowling positions respectively.
Since the 2015 World Cup, which ended in familiar heartbreak as New Zealand’s Grant Elliot dispatched Dale Steyn for six off the last ball of the semifinal in Auckland, no other team has a better win-loss ratio against the other teams in the tournament than South Africa with 23-11.
That said, should we expect to see a jubilant De Villiers hoisting the trophy aloft in two weeks’ time? Would anything less be considered yet another choke in a history of humiliating tournament failures?
Individual and collective rankings aside, South Africa is not the best team in the world and expectations should be tempered. A handful of superstars have carried the side for two years and, if they are to shake off their unwanted label, meaningful contributions will be needed from some unlikely sources.
South Africa unquestionably possesses the most in-form opening partnership of the past two years, as Quinton de Kock and Hashim Amla have combined for 1 298 runs at an average of 43.26, including two century stands.
Below them, Faf du Plessis and De Villiers round off a top four who can stand up to anything the rest of the world has to offer. All four are among the 13 batsmen who have scored more than 1 000 runs since the World Cup, with Du Plessis and De Kock behind only David Warner in this period.
What will keep Russell Domingo up at night will be the prospect of most, or all, of them failing in the same game. A top-four collapse would derail most teams, but South Africa’s soft midsection is a cause for concern.
After the quartet, JP Duminy has been the highest run scorer since the World Cup, but, with only 674 at 28.08 and without a century, the classy lefty has been far from his best.
He is likely to be in a head-to-head duel with Farhaan Behardien for a single spot in the middle order. Few other cricketers divide opinion like the Titans man but, in the same period, Behardien has scored his 556 runs at a higher average (34.75) and at a better rate: 92.97 to Duminy’s 78.
He has shown that he might not be the most gifted batsman but is an adept accumulator of runs and would dovetail well with David Miller, who is the only batsman outside the top four who has reached three figures since the World Cup.
As with the select batsmen carrying South Africa, on the bowling front the situation is similar with Rabada up front and Tahir in the middle overs.
Since the past World Cup, Rabada has been the world’s most prolific bowler, collecting 60 scalps, 10 more than England’s Adil Rashid and 12 more than Tahir.
Wayne Parnell’s performance in the third match against England at Lord’s on Monday offered hope that South Africa’s bowling efforts will not be carried solely on Rabada’s broad but only 22-year-old shoulders. As Joe Root found out, the left-armer’s ability to bring the ball back into the right-hander is a dangerous weapon.
Leg spinners have traditionally struggled in England but, with the ICC in control of the pitches for the tournament, surfaces are expected to dry up towards the business end. This could see Tahir battle in the group stages but, should South Africa make it through, their reliance on his control and wicket-taking ability will rise as the tournament progresses.
If the pitches do start turning next week, Keshav Maharaj could evolve South Africa’s attack into a formidable and well-rounded unit. The slow left-armer has only played two one-day internationals but his return of 3-25 at Lord’s showed off his control through the air.
It’s the same work ethic that brought him success in New Zealand and, as a genuine stroke player, he lightens the load for the all-rounders with bat in hand.
England’s destructive batsmen, Australia’s gluttony of pace and India’s all-round ability and winning mentality means they all start the tournament as favourites ahead of the Proteas. That does not mean De Villiers and co shouldn’t be confident. They have been imperious since that dramatic defeat in Auckland, albeit against mostly inferior opposition, and have four batsmen and two bowlers who would walk into any other team.
Questions remain about the supporting cast. If South Africa are to lift their first ICC title since the inaugural Champions Trophy back in 1998, those on the fringes must take centre stage.