South Africa seek unfamiliar end to familiar script
Here they go again. South Africa. In search of a major trophy. It's a script so well known, it must be close to being a classic. And South Africa still hope to be able to write a different ending.
The prelude has been much the same as in competitions past: South Africa have enjoyed a solid build-up, so much so that they are considered one of the teams to beat, and have a constellation of star players in their squad. On the way to the event, they've won series against two of the opposition they will meet in the pool stage - India and Sri Lanka - and, as the only non sub-continent team in the group, have come to terms with the amount of spin they will have to deal with.
So what will it take this time? Chances are that the answer is as simple as a little bit of luck, the one thing that has eluded South Africa over the years. It's not something they can train or plan for, only something they can hope finally finds it's way to them.
Several South African seniors - AB de Villiers, Faf du Plessis, Hashim Amla, JP Duminy, Imran Tahir and Morne Morkel - have spoken of the 2019 World Cup as their swansong. So desperate are they to win that trophy that they may forgive themselves if this event becomes little more than a practice round.
But they have a strong incentive not to regard the Champions Trophy so casually. Coach Russell Domingo's contract expires at the end of this tour and although he is free to reapply for his job, has given no indication of his future plans. This may be his last chance to have success at a limited-overs' competition and if that is the case, the squad, who have been vocal in their support of him, will want to send him off on a high.
Champions Trophy history
1998 - Champions 2000 - Semi-finalists 2002 - Semi-finalists 2004 - First round 2006 - Semi-finalists 2009 - First round 2013 - Semi-finalists
Before their trip to the UK, where South Africa lost the three-match rubber against England, they had won their last seven bilateral ODI series. Among those was a first-ever 5-0 whitewash over Australia, a clean sweep over Sri Lanka and victories in what were effectively finals in India, New Zealand and against England at home. In that time, South Africa equalled their longest winning streak of 12 matches, which was last achieved in 2005, and rose to No.1 on the ODI rankings to arrive at the Champions Trophy as among the favourites.
With four of the world's top-10 ODI batsmen (de Villiers sits at No. 1) and the world's top-two ODI bowlers in Kagiso Rabada and Imran Tahir, the quality of individuals in South Africa's squad is a standout strength. In Amla, Quinton de Kock, de Villiers, du Plessis, David Miller and Duminy, South Africa have players who can combine a well-paced innings with power-hitting and totals over 350 are not unfamiliar to them. In the bowling department, Tahir is the world's top-ranked limited-overs' spinner while Rabada is ODI cricket's newest No. 1, having overtaken Tahir on the rankings after the England series.
A mix of seam and spin talent, and experience and youth, give South Africa no less than eight bowling options. Among those is everything from a left-arm paceman - Wayne Parnell - to a death-bowling specialist in Andile Phehlukwayo and two specialist spinners.
In an attempt to give themselves as many options as possible, South Africa have packed their side with allrounders but getting the right balance in the XI may prove tricky. Chris Morris, Parnell, Dwaine Pretorius and Phehlukwayo are all bowling allrounders capable of hitting the ball a fair distance but South Africa are likely to only have room for two of the four in most XIs and they don't seem too sure which two.
South Africa have yet to decide on a new-ball pair - though Rabada and Morkel would seem an obvious choice - which has left them uncertain about the balance of the side. Add to that de Villiers' problems with managing his over rate and that the best captain, Faf du Plessis, does not lead the side in this format, and South Africa can sometimes seem comical in the field. But only sometimes.
- South Africa have lost half of the matches in the Champions Trophy in which they have batted second - six out of 12. Only Bangladesh have a worse record chasing. By contrast, South Africa have the best win-loss ratio when batting first, wining five out of eight games.
- Wayne Parnell has taken 11 of the 19 Champions Trophy wickets that South Africa's current squad have all together. Apart from Parnell, Duminy and Morris (who each have four wickets) and Morne Morkel are the only four bowlers with Champions Trophy experience.
- None of the batsmen in the current South African squad have scored a Champions Trophy hundred.
- South Africa have lost all three matches they have played against India in Champions Trophy history - twice in the semi-finals and once in the round-robin stage.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent