India v South Africa, World T20, semi-final April 3, 2014

South Africa and the ghosts of defeats past

South Africa have a history of goofing up at the knockout stage of world tournaments. Will it be different this time?

At crunch time in a major competition every team is focused on their opposition. They have to know almost as much about the 11 players on the other side as they do about themselves because that's the only way they will be able to beat them.

Of course the company line is to deny that and insist the focus is solely inward-looking and for one team that may actually be true - South Africa. Not only will they take on India in the semi-finals but they will also be jousting with the demons of almost every South African side who have been booted out of a knock-out match at an ICC event in the past.

That is a lot of people to be playing against and the ones who will haunt them most are the ghosts of Dhaka 2011 - not just because it is the same venue. Although South Africa have participated and failed at two tournaments since then, the 2012 World T20 and the 2013 Champions Trophy in which they reached the semi-finals, the 2011 World Cup is the one that stung most because it looked like South Africa's to win.

They sailed through the group stages, even beating the hosts and eventual champions India. They were the only side whose bowling attack dismissed the opposition in every game of the first round; the only one with 60 wickets to their name. They were handed what seemed the easiest quarter-final opponent, New Zealand. They thought nothing could go wrong and then everything did.

Vincent Barnes, who was the assistant coach, told Independent Newspapers Morne Morkel and Dale Steyn had their worst net session the day before the quarter-final. Barnes had to get the psychologist, Henning Gericke, to talk to both of them. There was also uncertainty over the playing XI because Steyn and Morkel had missed the final group stage match with niggles and their replacements, Lonwabo Tsotsobe and Wayne Parnell, had done well. Barnes aimed to clarify the team early to ease the concerns.

While Robin Peterson, who was South Africa's highest wicket-taker at the tournament, remembers preparing well, he admitted carelessness crept in. "Maybe there was a little bit of complacency at that stage," Peterson told ESPNcricinfo. "That game was just an enigma - to let ourselves down like that. I remember sitting in the change-room afterwards and we just couldn't believe the tournament was over for us."

Nine of the 15 members of the current World T20 squad experienced the same thing but Peterson believes the same affliction won't hit them this time. "I'm in touch with a lot of the guys and I know the feelings in the camp. Every game they play, I play it with them. There's some nerves but there's also a lot excitement. If they can get the balance between dealing with the pressure and having fun, they will do well."

But it is difficult to enjoy yourself when there are big things, things you have never achieved before, expected of you. "You have to be realistic as well. There can only be one winner," Peterson said. "But this is a young team and I think that's a good thing. Psychologically, they can draw on their recent performances against India, they have beaten them so they can do it again."

Last December, South Africa won a three-match ODI series 2-nil and a two-Test series, 1-nil. "We've had huge success against them, this season especially, and we're playing good cricket," Faf du Plessis said. Good enough to sneak under the radar for most of the tournament and pop into the final four almost by surprise. For another team that would not be cricket worth celebrating but for South Africa it is because, as Peterson explained, "it's put them are on an upward curve."

All of that may actually mean nothing because their opposition are not burdened by the stresses that accompany South Africa. "Most of these guys are involved in the Champions Trophy, so that's one experience everybody can draw from," India offspinner R Ashwin reminded. "We don't have any baggage. We've not lost many big competitions, there will be no scars with us. We have nothing to lose."

South Africa have everything to lose and they're already talking like they know it. "It's going to be a high-pressured game. We're expecting the pressure and so it's about making sure we do the basics really well," du Plessis said. "We've played really well as a team and we've had different guys performing in every single game so we're not relying on anyone [in particular]."

They can't even bank on summoning some of the good times Dhaka has given them, and there has been one standout, because none of them were around at the time. In 1998, South Africa won the inaugural Champions Trophy in Bangladesh but they're not even going to think about that on Friday. "I was still at school, so I was very young," du Plessis said. "But it's irrelevant for us as a group of players to be looking at past performances. These T20 tournaments are about what you do on the day, nothing before has any importance."

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent