England v South Africa, Champions Trophy, 1st semi-final, The Oval June 18, 2013

Another chance to shed baggage

One of cricket's more poignant memories is Graeme Smith's glance at the sky after a valiant but ultimately fruitless century in a Champions Trophy match in 2009. He had battled cramp, and been refused a runner, but marched to 141 before being dismissed by Stuart Broad. It was obvious Smith was battling tears and losing. So were South Africa.

Chasing 324 to win, South Africa were 274 for 9 after Smith fell, and had 19 balls to score 50. The game was up. England were through.

It's another war story of another team who have put South Africa out of a major tournament. Its another case of underachievement. Another choke. And the best (or worst, depending on how you measure these things) of the lot. It was dignified. It was heroic. And it hurt.

Since then, South Africa have been dumped out of other major tournaments and their pain has only increased. Centurion 2009 stings no more than St Lucia 2010, Dhaka 2011 or Colombo 2012. What South Africa do not want is to add London 2013 to the list.

Since Gary Kirsten took over as coach, they've approached major tournaments in a more open-minded fashion and embraced the label they once shunned. AB de Villiers seems to be able to say the word "choker," a million times a minute, just to underline he is not afraid to spit it out unprompted. He has even extended his use of it, applying it to different situations and different teams.

"I believe all teams choke in certain situations. It's just we somehow managed to get that tag behind our names," he said. He may have meant Sri Lanka, who have been in the last two World Cup finals and lost, or England, who have yet to win a fifty-over tournament, but those are mere details when compared with why South Africa are the team that have been branded this way.

Quite simply, because they have always had a unit capable of winning and they have always come up with ways not to win. As recently as Friday last week, they almost did it again. South Africa were one ball away from a flight home and know that if they are to find themselves on an airplane before Monday, they will be stuck with the same questions, again. "Unless we win this tournament, people will say we're chokers," de Villiers said. Damn right, too.

This time, South Africa claim to have worked on ways to deal with pressure. "The most important thing there is to expect the unexpected. We know it's going to happen. We know the pressure will be there," he said. "It's something we learned from Mike Horn leading up to this tournament: always expect what you don't think is going to happen."

That seems a sound philosophy apart from one thing: if something is unexpected, it can't be anticipated, and if it is then they are no longer expecting the unexpected. Be that as it may, de Villiers means South Africa are trying to prepare for anything, even the things they don't know they should be preparing for.

They're doing that by ensuring the camp is as relaxed and happy as possible. Few would argue that South Africa appear the best managed team in world cricket at the moment. Controversy seldom follows them. They don't have bar brawls, they don't get into problems with girls, and they don't make the papers for big nights on the town.

Even their most exciting outing so far - the Rihanna concert at Twickenham on Sunday night - was preceded by a morning in church. They spend their days tending to babies and their nights having quiet dinners with their wives and the occasional double date with a team-mate and his wife. In other words, they do on tour what they would do at home because Kirsten lets them.

De Villiers said that "allowed us to free up our minds and really just show our skills under pressure." Whether the latter is a result of the former will never be scientifically proven but South Africa believe it is. So far, their results agree. Even though they are in the semi-finals because luck went their way, the strength of their performance in the other two matches would suggest they deserve to be among the final four, certainly more than Pakistan or West Indies did.

They're talking the same talk they do before any major tournament knockout and saying things like, "we've had two big games and we didn't choke there," and "we know what we're capable of as a team. We're in a very good space." But all de Villiers' rhetoric will count for nothing unless South Africa push on to Birmingham, and then to the trophy. Unless they get there, what happens tomorrow will just be another memory, and another heartache.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent

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