South Africa v Sri Lanka, Champions Trophy, Group B, Centurion September 21, 2009

All too familiar terrain for South Africa

That which isn't mentioned anymore wasn't asked and so here we are. South Africa are hosting a big tournament, they are without a doubt the best side in the world at the moment and if this Champions Trophy is more open than recent ones, then they must be seen to be more equal than the others. Will they win this tournament? Except of course for that thing that isn't talked about anymore; that just hangs around, like the bad smell of an elephant, in the room.

We can all go blue in the face defining what exactly constitutes that which must not be said, but the only truth is that South Africa often go into big events looking a million dollars only to not win them. Until they do triumph at one of these prestige tournaments, that which will not be talked about, might not be talked about openly, but it will continue to hover around, in people's minds, in their whispers, on the tips of their tongues and in the air.

Kumar Sangakkara did his bit, floating a subtle bait out earlier, claiming that only one team will be under pressure. No one bit, least of all Graeme Smith. "It's a natural thing for Kumar to say," he said. "Passing the buck is a very good thing as an international captain these days," before swiftly passing it back with the observation that Sri Lanka's own record at these glittering multi-nation events was handy.

None of this is to take from South Africa's work over the last few years, for it has been immense. They are not the top dog in two formats by accident. Smith himself has been instrumental, pulling off the devilishly tricky feat of going from boy to man in the public eye. He has mellowed and to only look at him on the field, or hear him speak, you could well believe that the thing we don't speak of actually isn't such a big issue with him. But for a man so driven by ambition how can it possibly not be?

All the tools are in place under him. Even Herschelle Gibbs' absence from tomorrow's game - and possibly Thursday's - may be overcome if Hashim Amla, who will partner Smith, can replicate his Test successes. The middle order is fat with the potential of runs, and delightful runs if AB de Villiers and JP Duminy get their beat going.

And in a tournament of fine bowling attacks - one of the aspects to really savour here - theirs is finer still. They have the pace, the left-arm angle, all-rounders, and, in Johan Botha and Roelof van der Merwe, a spinning combination made for limited-overs cricket. "Over the last year and a half, Botha has become one of the best ODI bowlers," Smith said. "He's become an integral part of this format and it will be no different here tomorrow. He knows the ground well and has played a lot of cricket here. With Roelof, he forms a good combo." All bases, as Smith added, are indeed covered.

There are, however, a couple of niggling unknowns. The opener will be South Africa's first international game in five months, exactly the kind of non-preparation that often puts all the best preparation to ruin. This is not the kind of tournament which affords a slip. It is a concern, for Smith referred to it unprompted. "This is our first challenge in two-three months, so we walk straight in after that to a big day, big game, big tournament," he said. International day-night games, as Smith also pointed out, are rare in Centurion this time of the year and no one knows what that might bring to bear, even if "the pitches are generally good here."

South Africa are not quite cricket's Dinara Safina, the top-ranked female tennis player, who hasn't yet won a Slam. They have won many of cricket's unofficial slams over the last two years, winning in the subcontinent, England and Australia. When Smith speaks of trophies in the cabinet, he isn't entirely wrong. "These are things we have worked for. Two to three years ago we started a plan and we wanted to be number one in both forms of the game, and we are the only team bar Australia to achieve it. For us to have those trophies in the cabinet is a credit to how we play the game, how we've been successful around the world."

But until he puts the trophies that come with the Champions Trophy, the World Cup or the World Twenty20, he isn't quite right either.

Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo

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