SA’s bid to win their first International Cricket Council (ICC) trophy in 14 years and only their second ever starts today when they play Zimbabwe in the World Twenty20 series in Sri Lanka.
But a tournament format that would seem to have been designed for Russian roulette rather than cricket could prove to be a bigger hurdle for the Proteas, particularly with thunderstorms forecast for Hambantota today.
"The way it’s structured means that if SA are rained out against Zimbabwe and then lose to Sri Lanka (on Saturday) they might not get through to the second round — and that would be after playing just one game," former SA captain Shaun Pollock said yesterday. "I don’t agree with the way the event has been structured. You should have more games in the first round."
The teams have been divided into four groups of three sides each, with the top two advancing to the Super Eights. Should Pollock’s nightmare come true, the Proteas could easily be the odd team out in Group C.
That said, just 5mm of rain has been predicted for southern Sri Lanka today and tonight, and the Zimbabweans made abjectly poor opponents against the home side in the tournament’s opening match on Tuesday. Sri Lanka totalled 182/4 and sent Zimbabwe packing for 100 with 15 balls left in the match.
The Proteas, by contrast, are the most successful team in Twenty20’s short history. None of the other sides who have played this format at international level have a higher winning percentage than their 65.21.
If the weather plays ball today, Pollock felt SA would too: "Even though we have one of the stronger minnows in our group, I’m sure we’ll beat Zimbabwe."
The Sri Lankans "will be a tough ask in their home conditions, but once we get to the next round we’ll have time to settle in and I don’t see why we can’t go all the way".
The last and only time SA did that was in 1998, when they won the Wills International Cup in Bangladesh — the forerunner of what has evolved into the Champions Trophy.
Since then they have invariably arrived at major events among the hot favourites only to be eliminated prematurely, often by way of baffling performances that did not do justice to their combined talent, skill and experience.
"Yes, we’ve got that chokers label, but the fact of the matter is that you have to be good enough to get into a position to choke and a lot of teams aren’t," Pollock said.
"The more we get into those situations, the more we’ll learn to deal with it and we’ll come through. Eventually we will win something."
Would triumph in Sri Lanka erase the bitter memories of the past? "We won the mini-World Cup (the 1998 Wills International Cup) and we won the Commonwealth Games gold medal (the same year)," Pollock said.
"We’ve won some decent things in our time, but until we win a big event, this thing (the chokers tag) is not going to go away.
"I’m undecided as to the importance of this tournament, even though it is an ICC event, but you could call it another one of those big events.
"To win it would mean a lot of positives. It would be great for the team. They’re moving in the right direction," he said.
Former SA batsman Jonty Rhodes also sang a redemption song. "It’s still an ICC event, and to win it would go a long way to alleviating past disappointments," he said.
"It’s not a Mickey Mouse competition and there are a lot of good players involved.
"Regardless of how many overs you’re facing or bowling, it’s still a world event and it’s being played on a big stage, and we certainly have a team capable of winning it.
"We’re not palookas — we know how to win matches.
"Winning here wouldn’t take away the fact that we haven’t won a 50-over World Cup, but it will certainly go a long way towards allowing the guys to relax in this sort of arena," he said.
If that was to happen, Rhodes said, Gary Kirsten — who guided India to World Cup glory last year and SA to the top Test ranking in England last month — deserved a large chunk of the credit.