De Villiers wants fitting finish for Kirsten
Twice during the last ICC tournament in Sri Lanka, AB de Villiers evoked the most taboo word in the South Africa cricket lexicon, unprovoked. Perhaps in an attempt to redefine the word, or maybe feeling that acceptance of it would bring progress, he spoke of previous South African teams having "choked" at the pre-tournament press conference in Colombo. He was keen to impress then that the team that had arrived at the World Twenty20 had made a clear break from that past. Funnily enough, three weeks later, he was using that same word to describe South Africa's loss to Pakistan.
In London, de Villiers did not embrace the tag quite as zealously, but that hardly means South Africa are paying little heed to the mental side of their game. As in last year's English summer, when South Africa captured the Test mace, they have been working with explorer Mike Horn, who, having also worked with the India team prior to their 2011 World Cup triumph, is quickly gaining a reputation as the world's preeminent cricket whisperer.
Before they arrived in England, South Africa had spent five days in Amsterdam, where they played Netherlands in an ODI as part of their preparation. "When we arrived there, the weather was quite bad and we were very worried about the preparation we were going to get in," de Villers said. "But it actually turned out to be a great week for us. We had a nice run in with Mike Horn, a very good fitness day and basically saw the whole of Amsterdam on bicycle, rowing and on foot. It was a great experience, and we learned a lot from him."
For the first time in years, however, South Africa have arrived at a major tournament with a side that may not, on paper, be one of the tournament frontrunners. A pace attack featuring Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Lonwabo Tsotsobe looks as menacing as any in the country, but without Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis in the squad, the top order appears to lack solidity. But perhaps, free of the mental baggage of previous campaigns, the fresh faces who have replaced the old hands can provide the antidote for South Africa's big-tournament ailment.
"Graeme and Jacques will be missed experience wise," de Villiers said. "They've played for a long time. But I like to look at things in a positive way. There is a lot of energy coming in a guy like David Miller. We saw him in many games in the IPL, and he brings a lot of confidence to the team. To have an added number six or seven that can win a game from anywhere is great."
England's early-summer pitches may ply South Africa's fast bowlers with helpful wickets, but the attack once again looks light on spin, with left-armers Robin Peterson and Aaron Phangiso providing the slow-bowling options. De Villiers did not believe his side's spin bowling to be a weakness, and given Peterson's agreeable record in England, where he averages 21.71 in five matches, perhaps his faith is not misguided.
"I believe Robin is a very good spin bowler. He's been around a long time. He's actually surprised a lot of people in the last few years with the amount of wickets he's taken. He's a wicket taker for us, so that always makes him a dangerous bowler. It's just a matter of me finding the right time for the spinners to have the biggest impact on the game."
The Champions Trophy will be coach Gary Kirsten's last assignment in charge. He had scripted the side's rise to the top of the Test rankings. In addition to also having won the World Cup with India, de Villiers said he deserved nothing less than a triumphant finish with the team.
"It would be nice to give him a good farewell. He's been a great coach to us. We've learned a hell of a lot from him in the few years that he's been our coach. He's more like a mentor on the team. I find it funny calling him coach because no one calls him coach. He's almost like one of our friends and a mentor kind of guy that's really managed the team very, very well."
South Africa play Pakistan in a warm-up match at the Oval on Monday, and will begin their tournament against India on Thursday.
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. He tweets here