South Africa face knockout pressure before the knockouts
Remember when the Champions Trophy used to be really harsh? When it had no room for error? Remember 1998 - it was called the ICC Knockout then - when teams had only one chance to advance? South Africa made it through three such matches. They won a quarter-final, a semi-final and a final in what remains their most successful streak in elimination encounters.
These days, say they word knockout to them and their eyes widen, their voices crack and the panic in their demeanour is obvious. They know they are not good at sudden-death situations.
South Africa have lost seven out of 12 knockout games in 50-over ICC tournaments and tied one. Their four wins came more than a decade ago, which means nobody in the current squad has tasted success in an elimination.
With that record, they enter a must-win game against West Indies in Cardiff on Friday. The match is as good as a quarter-final but South Africa are being careful not to think of it that way. Russell Domingo, their assistant coach who will take over from Gary Kirsten as head coach at the end of this tournament, resolutely referred to it by as many other terms as he could think of, and said the real pressure will kick in only once South Africa reach the real knock-out stage.
"This is a knockout game but not a knockout game, if you know what I mean. It's not a semi-final or a final," he said. "We can't look too far ahead but if we can get over the semi-final, then we'll be there and thereabouts, but it's this game first. The semi-final will be seen as a massive step for us, that's the monkey on the back."
Domingo's disguise of the final group match as simply a big game is not too far off the mark. If South Africa lose and return home on Saturday, there will be disappointment but not disgust. But if they make it to the final four they will have enormous pressure to go all the way. For now, all they can do is narrow the focus and aim to beat West Indies, a side they have had the better of in recent years.
South Africa have won 18 of their last 20 ODIs against West Indies, a record Domingo declared "very good." He will be alarmed to learn that the only two matches they lost, in 2004 and 2006, were in a Champions Trophy and both results put South Africa out of the competition.
That statistic sums up the difference between the two teams. West Indies have been lacking overall but can rise to the big occasion, while South Africa are otherwise consistent but fold under pressure. Domingo knows that means their dominance over West Indies could count for little on Friday. "They've got 11 game-breakers," he said. "We know that we are going to have our hands full."
The most dangerous of those marquee men is Chris Gayle. His century led to South Africa's exit in Jaipur seven years ago but he has been lying low in this competition so far. Gayle's two innings have yielded 60 runs and he has been kept mostly quiet. South Africa will want to ensure he doesn't wake up against them, something they were successful at during the 2011 World Cup.
In a surprise move in Delhi, Johan Botha opened the bowling and had Gayle caught at first slip. South Africa's only right-arm offspinner on this tour is JP Duminy and they may turn to him to work early magic against Gayle. "A lot will depend on the conditions. If it's overcast, maybe opening with a spinner will not be necessary but if it's dry, then we might," Domingo said. "We know if we can get him out early, it's a big blot for the West Indies morale."
Rain is forecast for Friday so there's every chance South Africa will adopt a more conventional approach to the match. Whatever they decide, Domingo said the emphasis will be on small things rather than major tactical innovations. "It is really important to do your basic disciplines well: limiting extra balls, someone batting through to the 44th over, those are crucially important."
South Africa also hope for a more welcoming reception than they had at their previous two matches. In front of highly partisan subcontinental crowds, Domingo said he could count "about nine South Africans," but the lack of noise around the team has not been too much of a bad thing.
"We know crowd support can go two ways. It can be a massive source of inspiration or it can be a massive source of pressure, so we are very much under the radar," he said. Not anymore. Whether they want to acknowledge it or not, South Africa will play a knockout match on Friday. The pressure is on.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent