It's difficult to believe that the team ranked No. 1 in one-day internationals has not won an ICC event in 11 years. The one tournament they did win under the auspices of cricket's governing body was in 1998, when South Africa beat West Indies in the final of the ICC knock-out tournament in Bangladesh.
Since then, South Africa haven't even managed to make the final of an ICC tournament. Their World Cup woes have earned them the tag of 'chokers' and their Champions Trophy record has done nothing to erase that label. Their subsequent campaigns, following the 1998 victory, were derailed by defeats to India in the 2000 and 2002 semi-finals, and losses to West Indies in the 2004 and 2006 competitions.
AB de Villiers, though, believes the silverware dearth is about to end. "I think, in the next two years, we will be bringing home the trophies. It will be our time," he said during a training camp in Potchefstroom a week ago. South Africa chose the small town as their preparation pond, perhaps hoping some of the magic that rubbed off on Australia, when they trained there ahead of the 2003 World Cup, will sprinkle itself on them too.
After a three month break from the game, following the World Twenty20 in June, the South African team reconvened last week for a seven-day camp and will have another week-long session at the same venue. The training has involved warm-up matches against the Lions franchise as well as general fitness and net sessions. Despite the intensity with which the team is preparing for the competition, coach Mickey Arthur says this year's Champions Trophy is "not the be all and end all" of the team's limited-over ambitions.
"We are a process-driven side and as long as we keep working as a team I am happy," Arthur told Cricinfo. "The team has enjoyed successes together for some time now and as long as they all produce in their roles, we will do well. Whichever team strings five good performances together during the event will win."
This isn't the first time South Africa go into a competition as one of the favourites. But this time they're banking on home advantage to give them an extra edge over the other teams, even though it didn't work at the 2003 World Cup or the 2007 World Twenty20. "We are extremely comfortable with the two venues the tournament will be played at (Supersport Park, Centurion and The Wanderers, Johannesburg)," said Arthur. "We've had some good results at both stadiums in the past and we receive lots of local support there as well."
Shaun Pollock, who was part of both those home campaigns, believes it might be "third time lucky" for South Africa. "They know the conditions better than anyone else and, given their performances of late, they will have a lot of crowd support." In fact, Pollock thinks the benefit of playing at home will even counteract the lack of match practice in the past few months. "They would have probably have wanted to play two or three one-day games to be really firing, especially since almost all the other teams have been in action recently. While I would have said that would work in favour of other teams, I think its negated by the fact that South Africa are at home."
The other danger for the team will be going into the tournament complacent, as they appeared to be at the World Twenty20 in June. South Africa went into their semi-final against Pakistan determined that they were ready to reach a final - Arthur said they were "very strong and ready to go to another level". Needless to say, the chokers tag was stuck onto the team even more firmly than before after they lost by seven runs.
This time, Arthur hasn't talked up his team's chances. "I think there are seven out of the eight teams who could stand a chance of winning (He did not want to make public which team he thought was not going to be in contention.). But I do think the four semi-finalists will be South Africa, Australia, India and Sri Lanka. Then again you underestimate New Zealand at your peril and depending on which Pakistan team shows up, they could be dangerous as well."
Although Arthur and his team appear to have realised the importance of finally winning an ICC event, they are not letting on that this will be any more important than any other competition. Maybe it's just a clever way of disguising the pressure.
"It will definitely mean something for them to win and it certainly counts more than any normal series," Pollock said. Of course South Africa, ever the diplomats, could just see the Champions Trophy as yet another stepping stone on their road to something else, as they so often do with series that they lose. "Doing well in the competition will certainly give them confidence ahead of the 2011 World Cup," said Pollock. But somehow, one doubts they'll be willing to spend another two years as the best team never to have won a trophy.