Rejuvenated South Africa target Indian prize
It's a transformation achieved with essentially the same playing personnel, although they have had two coaches since South Africa crashed out of the 2004 ICC Champions Trophy when they lost against the West Indies in a group match. The defeat against West Indies sent South Africa tumbling to eighth place in the ICC rankings - ahead of only Zimbabwe and Bangladesh among Test nations. Now they are at number two behind Australia after an unbeaten run of 19 matches, which includes 12 straight wins.
Eric Simons was fired as coach after the Champions Trophy and Ray Jennings, his short-term replacement, brought in tougher discipline. The incumbent Mickey Arthur, who has a tenure all the way to the 2007 World Cup, is building on that.
"We've moved forward. There's a lot more confidence," says Graeme Smith, the captain, comparing the current side with the one that lost 10 matches in a row in 2004 before the Champions Trophy. "We went for a lot of young guys and it was always going to take time for them to find their feet at the international level and it's still going to take more time. The guys are starting to feel more comfortable in their own abilities. We've got some structures right and the guys have really put their hands up, which is often the key thing in pressure situations."
At 24, Smith is still one of the youngest captains in the world and his inexperience has often showed. But he has grown into the role and has shown the ability to make critical bowling and field-placing changes. His batting has also improved. It took the left-handed opener 59 matches to score his first one-day international century but he then reeled off four in eight matches to provide the foundation for big totals. A stint with the English county Somerset this year has helped Smith work on his one-day shot-making. Previously known mainly for his leg-side play, Smith has added some beefy off-side strokes to his repertoire. "I'm feeling a lot more aggressive. My strike rate has gone up and I'm more confident all around the wicket."
Although there haven't been wholesale changes in the team, the emergence of Justin Kemp as the big-hitting successor to 1999 World Cup hero Lance Klusener has been significant. Kemp was named Man of the Series on Sunday after South Africa beat New Zealand 4-0 in a five-match series, with one match abandoned due to rain.
Kemp twice turned potential defeats into victories with his powerful strokeplay, striking 74 off 64 balls in the first match at Bloemfontein, then hitting Shane Bond, the fast bowler, for a huge six followed by a four after South Africa started the last over of the third game at Port Elizabeth still needing nine to win. Kemp, 28, is a useful medium-pacer and an outstanding catcher close to the wicket or in the deep. After going through a dip last year, South Africa's fielding is back to the high standards of a few years ago.
Two others who weren't part of the Champions Trophy team are Andre Nel and Charl Langeveldt. With Shaun Pollock's loss of pace becoming a liability in the closing overs of a game, these two have taken over bowling at the death. Langeveldt was responsible for one of the most dramatic of South Africa's victories when he took a hat-trick in the last over of a match against the West Indies at Barbados in May to give his side a one-run win.
In India, however, South Africa's status will be challenged. Herschelle Gibbs, who has averaged over 50 with the bat and been an inspirational fielder during South Africa's winning streak, and Nicky Boje, the country's only tried and trusted slow bowler, will both be missing. They were unavailable after Indian police refused to give any guarantees that they would not face arrest following their naming in the 2000 Hansie Cronje scandal.
Also absent is batsman Boeta Dippenaar, who had become a reliable opening partner for Smith. He had to pull out because of a wrist operation. AB de Villiers took over as an opener in the New Zealand series but hasn't yet been able to build a big one-day international innings. South Africa have gambled by picking off-spinner Johan Botha, a former seamer who has bowled spin in only five first-class games.