Mature South Africa ready to move on
Everybody's favourite major tournament side, if only because they routinely arrive with their own hangman and noose. South Africa are the team that's always supposed to win and never do, except for once in 1998 in the ICC Knock-Out, a tournament that was the precursor to the Champions Trophy. This time, they say - just as they have all the other times - things will be different.
For the jaded South African fan, those words are no comfort. The wound inflicted by New Zealand in the quarter-finals of last year's fifty-over World Cup has not yet healed completely because then too, things were supposed to be different.
But this time, things have really changed. South Africa's new management has taken a squad that is scared of the shine of silverware and given them sunglasses. And a hat. And an umbrella. And the materials to make sunglasses, a hat and umbrella if the existing ones break.
Gary Kirsten, with the help of Paddy Upton and Mike Horn, has thought of everything either side of the box to change South Africa from predictable and stoic to dynamic and creative. In doing so, he has also made them lighter.
Not since the chokers tag was pinned on them have South Africa seemed so relaxed, controlled and honest before a major tournament. AB de Villiers, their captain, even went as far as to use the once-banned c-word, turning a that-which-shall-not-be-named into something he is willing to take about maturely. This from the same man who stunned a Chennai media session 19 months ago with his "we're the opposite of chokers," tirade of the 2011 World Cup is a sign of how much South Africa have grown.
Their mental side will be more on display than anything else, because it is what has let them down in the past. Never short on talent or skill, the South Africa squad at this tournament is as strong as it has been in many others. The experience of Jacques Kallis, Hashim Amla and soon-to-depart-to-South-Australia Johan Botha, South Africa have shrewd heads. JP Duminy, Faf du Plessis and Wayne Parnell provide the youthful heart.
Their one concern could be the shape of the batting order which has not settled yet. Middle-order collapses have often been the cause of South Africa's downfall and they will want to prevent being the weak spot again.
After being dropped from the national T20 side at the end of the 2010 edition of this competition, Jacques Kallis is back. Not the Kallis that singlehandedly derailed South Africa's chase against Australia in the 2007 World Cup or the one who bats for time rather than runs but a new, improved, refreshed, refound-zest-for-life Kallis. Impressive performances in opening both the batting and bowling for the Kolkata Knight Riders in the IPL helped Kallis force his way back into the squad even though his international twenty-over career was thought over.
More important than Kallis performances or presence of mind will be his influence over the side, which has grown since Kirsten took over. Kallis was previously content to allow others to lead while he did his own thing but under Kirsten he has become more outspoken (his tirade against DRS in New Zealand is one example, his handling of Mark Boucher's retirement another) and forthright. Kirsten has encouraged players to take responsibility and Kallis has taken on more than his share to emerge as a whole character, not just a cricketer. Personally, the tournament is an important one for Kallis. His career is studded with achievement and the absence of an ICC medal is becoming more glaring with each passing milestone. He has admitted that he would love nothing more than to have one slung around his neck and South African cricket would love to give that to him.
South Africa's turning attitude to spin has just about come full circle and they will more than likely field two frontliners in the starting XI. Robin Peterson will partner Johan Botha, and although he is no newbie, Petersen's performances may come as a surprise. Peterson has been playing international cricket for longer than every member for the South Africa squad besides Kallis but only became a regular in the team last year.
He finished the 2011 World Cup as South Africa's leading wicket-taker and has blossomed with the confidence shown in him. Peterson will likely open the bowling, giving him an opportunity to display his much improved abilities with the ball and could also come in handy in the lower middle order. With Botha being released from his CSA contract at the end of the tournament, Peterson could establish himself as the premier spinner in the side.
South Africa's middle order could be exploited as a technical fault by opposition teams. The real way to get under South Africa's skins will be to get into their heads. Pressure is to South Africa what the red flag is to a bull and we all know who ends up second best in most bull-fights. What has most puzzled analysts for years is how that pressure is applied to South Africa. A careful concoction of mind games has combined to force the worst cricket out of them, usually striking when they are in confident positions to start with.
On their recent tour of England, South Africa showed that they can hammer home an advantage and come out on top in big moments. That is a new development, though. History says that South Africa can be dismantled piece by piece from any situation if the right mix of mental strain is put on them. Over the years, teams have tried and succeeded with various recipes of that mix and may have cooked a few more up for this event.
World T20 history
In two of the last three World T20s, South Africa seemed destined for the trophy but were booted out by the eventual winners.
The inaugural event, in South Africa, saw them win all their matches until the final Super Six game against India in Durban. Truth be told, South Africa could have afforded to lose the match, as long as their run-rate didn't dip too low but they slumped to 31 for 5 in chase of 154. RP Singh's four wickets derailed them and India went on to win the competition.
In 2009, South Africa were again on a roll and beat England and India, among others, on their way to the semi-finals. There, Shahid Afridi and a spirited Pakistan ensured South Africa would keep their record of never winning a knock-out match intact as they won by five runs and sent South Africa home.
The following year, South Africa seemed to have lost all interest in the tournament. They lost their opening match to India but beat Afghanistan to advance and then only won one match in the Super Eight stage. Losses to England and Pakistan ended a forgettable campaign.
South Africa have played a higher number of T20s than usual in preparation for the tournament. Their six scheduled ones for 2012, saw them win three. In New Zealand, South Africa rallied from 1-nil down to take the series 2-1 while they drew 1-all in England with the third match abandoned because of the weather.
An unofficial T20 tournament was also organised, between South Africa, Zimbabwe and Bangladesh in Harare in June. South Africa took an experimental squad, leaving out Kallis, Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and de Villiers, and were surprisingly outplayed. The team lost to both Zimbabwe and Bangladesh in the group stage and were defeated by Zimbabwe in the final, with the middle order once again an issue.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent