Proteas yet to bloom

That magnificent win over Australia at The Wanderers in March 2006 has shown the potential of South Africa. But for the team to realise its promise, it needs to win more consistently, writes Andy Hampson.

South Africa gave the World Cup schedulers plenty of work to do when they were included in the 1992 tournament at short notice. However, after a long period of isolation their presence freshened up the international game. They added considerably to a colourful and spectacular event and showed great promise as they reached the semifinals.

That promise was close to being realised seven years later as the clever guidance of coach Bob Woolmer and the astute captaincy of Hansie Cronje took them within a whisker of the final in England.

In Shaun Pollock, Jacques Kallis and Lance Klusener they had three players of outstanding all-round ability — and the blistering batting performances of the last named made for one of the stories of the 1999 tournament.

In Allan Donald they had one of the game's best fast bowlers; Mark Boucher was developing as a fine wicketkeeper-batsman, and Herschelle Gibbs looked a potentially great batsman and was already a fine fielder. Yet their World Cup dream ended catastrophically as Australia dramatically and famously snatched a tie in their semifinal and went through courtesy of their superior record from the Super Six stage.

South Africa may never get a better opportunity to win a World Cup, but the feeling at the time was very much that their chance must come.

What could not have been anticipated, however, was the dramatic downfall of Cronje who brought disgrace on the game and his country when he was caught for match-fixing less than a year later. His subsequent confessions unearthed one of the biggest scandals to have hit the game, and he was consequently banned for life.

The whole affair plunged South African cricket — and indeed the country as a whole — into a prolonged period of gloom. Initially there was shock and anger — but then came a feeling of sympathy for Cronje over the way he, as one of the country's heroes, had given into temptation and paid the price.

The mood had hardly lifted when Cronje's death in a plane crash in 2002 brought the matter hurtling back to the fore.

Most of the South Africa team had been friends with Cronje and they respected their former captain. A number of them were badly affected and, after that, Cronje's spectre was always likely to overshadow the 2003 World Cup in South Africa.

South Africa's performances in the tournament were subdued, and they were eliminated early when they farcically miscalculated their Duckworth/Lewis target in a rain-affected group match against Sri Lanka.

In a tournament that struggled to get going, the hosts' premature exit did the International Cricket Council few favours.

Pollock, as captain, paid the price after failing to break out of Cronje's shadow — but four years later the whole team are still to rediscover their former zest.

The ICC currently rank them second in their one-day ratings but they remain some way behind Australia and lack the excitement that the likes of Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka can offer. Personnel have changed since 2003, and new players have been tried and tested. But the core of the side remains the same — with Pollock, Kallis, Boucher, Gibbs and Graeme Smith, now captain, all still in situ.

The cocksure Smith, who came into the 2003 World Cup side as a late injury replacement, became his country's youngest captain at 22 when he took over from Pollock. He promised a fresh approach, and the selectors' faith was immediately repaid as he hit back-to-back double centuries against England. In his hands the future looked bright and perhaps the problems of the past could at last be put aside.

In many ways that has happened.

Time has come between the team and Cronje's downfall, and Smith has proved an inspirational and chirpy leader, bringing the best out of key men such as Pollock and Kallis and, on the whole, performing well himself.

Yet, as the World Cup approaches, South Africa are not in the best shape. The past year has been a difficult one for Smith and the rest of the team, with results, particularly abroad, falling below standard.

Admittedly most teams struggle against Australia, but series drubbings at home and away to them did little for South African morale — and they were also thrashed by Sri Lanka. Their performances in the ICC Champions Trophy were modest too — and at present it is difficult to see them challenging Australia for the World Cup, their record 438 to beat them in Johannesburg in March 2006 notwithstanding.

Smith has recently looked as if he has been carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders.

When South African teams struggle, deep-seated racist views are always waiting to be aired in some quarter — and that brings unfair pressures on all players.

Smith has also had to put a brave face on some controversial choices from the selectors, and sometimes it is no wonder his smile has not much been seen.

Those exhilarating performances of 1999 seem an age ago now, but that magnificent win over Australia at The Wanderers has shown the potential that exists. To fully rid South Africa from the troubles of the past few years, they need to find a way to unlock it for more than one day.

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