Victorious in Dhaka
There is one ICC tournament that South Africa approach with excitement rather than a sense of trepidation: the Champions Trophy. It is the one global competition they have actually won. They were the inaugural victors in 1998 and even though it does not, in the words of Daryll Cullinan, "carry the same prestige" as a World Cup, it's a triumph they take great pride in.
The squad that travelled to Dhaka to compete in the Wills International Cup was still relatively new to international cricket - South Africa had only been readmitted seven years before then - so every experience was considered a step in their growth. But they were not just toddlers stumbling in the dark. They had begun to take confident strides and their triumph in 1998 was proof of that.
"We were at our peak then. There's no doubt we were the best team at that competition," Cullinan said. A combination of meticulous planning, a sustained build-up of positive results, controlling aspects of their game such as fitness and having sufficient depth to allow for injury losses - all contributed to South Africa's major tournament glory.
From the outset, they were favourites to win the event, as the numbers clearly illustrated. Even though South Africa had not played as many matches as some of their opponents in the 30-month period between the end of the 1996 World Cup and the beginning of the 1998 tournament, they had the best record over that time.
Of the 59 matches they participated in, South Africa won 45, giving them a success rate of 76%. That was overwhelmingly more than any other team. The then-world champions Sri Lanka had won 65.5% of matches they played, while West Indies (54%), Pakistan, England (both 52%) and Australia (44%) lagged behind. India, who played the most matches at 97, had only won 39%.
Perhaps more tellingly, South Africa successes were achieved in multi-team tournaments as well as bilateral events. They competed in ten ODI series, eight of which involved three or more teams. South Africa won six of the ten, including the Sharjah Cup against India and Pakistan in the UAE on April 1996, and the Wills Quadrangular against Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and West Indies in November 1997.
They were comfortable with quick changeovers between matches, like the 1998 event would demand, and had become used to being "ruthless," as Cullinan said. As an ODI machine, they operated smoothly, because of the systems put in place by Bob Woolmer. Not only did he demand excellence from his players, but he ensured South Africa were at the forefront of new developments by forming important partnerships with other sports figures, such as Tim Noakes at the country's Sports Science Institute.
"We were the first side to have a fitness trainer and to place such importance on the physical side of things. You could easily say we were world leaders in that department and even a team like Australia was looking at us in terms of what we were doing," Cullinan said.
Being at the forefront in a discipline, instead of playing catch-up, helped take some of the anxiety off the squad, according to Nicky Boje. "We didn't feel under too much pressure," Boje said. "Bob and Hansie ran a good ship. Everyone knew their role in the side, we all enjoyed each other's company and we had a fair amount of experience."
Although they lost Shaun Pollock to a back injury on the eve of the tournament and were already without Allan Donald, Lance Klusener, and Roger Telemachus - who were undergoing a forced period of rest (player management was in force even then) - South Africa had the mechanisms to cope. They took the likes of Steve Elworthy and Alan Dawson, who made his debut in their first match.
South Africa opening game was the quarter-final against an England side that had been given special dispensation not to play their first-choice team, because they had embarked on an Ashes tour. Dawson was preferred over Elworthy, much to his surprise, and was thrown in at the deep end when he was asked to open the bowling as well.
"I was rooming with Pat Symcox and I was very nervous the night before when I was told I could play," Dawson said. "Symmo calmed me down a little bit, he told me what to expect and put me a little at ease. But I still couldn't believe it when I stepped onto the field and there were about 45,000 people in the crowd. I had never played in front of so many people. I was told to bowl the first ball, and I was so scared I overstepped by about two feet."
Dawson steadied himself and went on to record figures of 1 for 51 in nine overs. He can still recall exactly how he got his first international wicket. "It was Jack Russell and he was caught on the boundary by Dale Benkenstein. There are times in your career when you doubt yourself and you wonder if you can compete at the highest level and then you do it and it's very special."
South Africa were set a target of 282 and chased it down with 20 balls to spare. They were spearheaded by Cullinan's 69 and carried through by Cronje and Jonty Rhodes 117-run fourth wicket stand. It was a convincing start, although Cullinan felt it could have been made even more so had he batted through.
"There was a 100 for the taking that day, there was so much time and I was hitting it well. I was furious when I got out to Graeme Hick," he said. "But we always knew if we played to our potential against England, we could probably beat them."
Despite the win, Dawson was benched for the remainder of the tournament and Elworthy was brought back. "It was the right decision to play a more experienced guy as we got closer to the final," Dawson said. In hindsight, he was not simply being gracious.
Elworthy and Symcox took three wickets each as South Africa bundled Sri Lanka out for 132 in less than 24 overs to defend their total of 240, which was built on the back of a 100-ball 113 scored by a 23-year-old Jacques Kallis. Cullinan called it "a big confidence booster" given the stature of Sri Lanka at the time.
Kallis' innings from that day sticks in the memory, especially because he went on to play a starring role in the final against West Indies. His 5 for 30 ensured South Africa needed to score 246 to secure silverware.
They paced their chase well and reached the target after 47 overs to be crowned champions. It was a day Cullinan, Boje, Dawson, and the rest of the squad will forever hold dear. "When you go into events like that you want to want to see where you are in terms of other teams but you also want to win to show the world you can," Boje said. "There was huge satisfaction in winning and a big party too."
For Dawson, who didn't play in any World Cups, it was the closest he came to something of that magnitude. "It absolutely felt like a big event and it was just awesome to be part of," he said. "I had actually played in the Commonwealth Games in August that year and we won that too. So I was one of a handful of guys who won two major tournaments for South Africa."
One of others in that group was Kallis, who was crowned Man of the Series in Bangladesh, was the highest wicket-taker in the tournament and firmly established himself as the country's next star. Kallis had played 48 ODIs before the tournament and was already being regarded as a special talent. Although he had confirmed it at Test level with a century against Australia, this event showed his one-day prowess at its best.
"We had anticipated Jacques would get up to that standard, so it wasn't a surprise to us," Cullinan said. "What was notable at that time was that he was bowling quickly and swinging the ball too. It was very impressive to watch."
Fifteen years later, Kallis is still an international cricketer and hailed as one of the best the game has ever seen, but South Africa will not be able to rely on him for the last edition of the Champions Trophy. The allrounder, who no longer plays bilateral ODI series, asked not to be considered for personal reasons, and Cullinan thinks his absence will hurt the team's chances.
"Someone of Jacques' character and with his presence brings confidence and belief into a side," he said. "Some of the younger guys in the middle order for example, and they will never say it, but without Jacques in the line-up, it leaves [them] vulnerable and insecure. We must not forget there are many guys still playing for their place in the side."
Even so, the consensus among the three men who lifted the trophy in 1998 is that South Africa have what it takes to repeat that. "There are match-winners in guys like AB de Villiers and Dale Steyn. As long as they acclimatise quickly, especially batting wise, I think they can win," Cullinan said.
Boje concurred with that assessment. "Getting the middle order to perform will be the biggest challenge, but if they do, South Africa have every chance of winning." Dawson said the team has no choice but to finally show their fans they are capable of bringing it home. "I don't know what more they have to do to win an event like this. It's theirs now."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent