Critics expect them to falter

Can the South Africans justify their No. 1 ODI ranking by winning the World Cup in the Caribbean?-S. SUBRAMANIUM ?

South Africa has the team but does it have the nerve and the power of personality to win the World Cup? Until the deed has been done the sceptics will remain quizzical, writes Peter Roebuck.

South Africa's surge to the top of the one-day rankings cannot be ignored. Admittedly the rise has been partly due to a sudden deterioration in the Australian bowling and fielding. Nevertheless South Africa deserves credit for snapping at the leaders' heels. Graeme Smith's side has been formidable on its own pitches and competitive elsewhere. Meanwhile other teams have come and gone, with only the Sri Lankans and Kiwis sustaining their challenges. India has an ageing side, Pakistan is inclined to lose its kit, the West Indies' bowling looks weak and though England ended its tour with a flourish, their form is patchy.

Now the crucial question arises — can South Africa win a World Cup? No one doubts that Smith's side is strong. His outfit includes several high-class batsmen, some fine all-rounders, a few dangerous smiters and a lively attack that has plenty of heart but not much variety. South Africa will go to the Caribbean as one of the most fancied sides. And yet, and yet... Far from backing them, most informed critics expect them to falter.

Sceptics pinpoint two weaknesses in the South African camp. Neither of them concerns cricket alone. History indicates a tendency to freeze at critical moments. Everyone remembers Herschelle Gibbs' dropped catch in Leeds in 1999, a calamitous error that pointed towards the reckless streak that has reduced the impact of a gifted player. But the catch alone did not make defeat inevitable. It was the reaction to the blunder that condemned Hansie Cronje's side. Rather than falling back, the players should have created another opportunity. Instead they found someone to blame, thereby absolving themselves.

Much the same inability to deal with adversity was evident in the subsequent semifinal against the same opponent. South Africa was the better side. A struggling Australian outfit was unable to impose any authority. On paper the match could have gone the other way. But could it? Sometimes it seems that a sporting god exists, a divinity determined to reward those plunging into the ferment and to punish those hovering on the brink. From the Australian perspective, the Boks "took the gas".

Nor did the enduring image of the South Africans pottering about whilst rain fell in Durban last time around exactly instil confidence. As a result of their dithering and confusion the host failed to reach the second round. Was it just another mishap? Or did it reflect a deep-rooted anxiety? Somehow Smith must release his players from the fear of defeat. They must arrive in the Caribbean with a light step and a laugh, excited about their chances not wearied by the load they carry.

South Africa's second challenge is to find a player to take charge of the later rounds. World Cups are won by strong sides driven along by great players. In 1975 Clive Lloyd decided that his side's time had come. In 1979, Viv Richards imposed himself on the tournament. In 1983 Kapil Dev led his side to an amazing upset — his catch to remove the mighty Richards in the Lord's final was the turning point. Allan Border guided his men to victory in 1987 and the Lion of Lahore, Imran Khan, lifted the trophy in the next edition. And so it has continued.

Dare any South African unleash himself at such a prestigious event? Jacques Kallis is the obvious candidate, but Smith and Gibbs are other plausible contenders. South Africa has the team but does it have the nerve and the power of personality? Until the deed has been done the sceptics will remain quizzical.