Pak v SA, World Twenty20, 1st semi-final, Trent Bridge June 17, 2009

'We aren't scared of losing' - Arthur

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Ten years on from that semi-final at Edgbaston, South Africa are ready to bury the ghosts of the past once and for all. The country's record when it comes to the crunch at world events isn't one of the nations' prouder sporting achievements but there is a feeling that this generation of players can make amends.

South Africa's only 'global' title came in 1998 when they won the first mini World Cup in Bangladesh and the following year came their most harrowing tournament exit when they tied with Australia. The pressure told again in 2003 when a misread Duckworth-Lewis chart sent them out of their own World Cup and twice in 2007 - against Australia at the 50-over World Cup and against India at the World Twenty20 - batting collapses ended their campaigns.

You wouldn't blame supporters for hiding behind the sofa when the semi-final against Pakistan, at Trent Bridge, starts on Thursday, but the South African team is far more confident. "We've been in pressure situations before and have come through them," Mickey Arthur, their coach, said. "It's a different team of players, a different set of management and coaching staff.

"Yes, we could get beaten tomorrow and then the chokers tag might surface but for us that's not an issue so long as we are playing the game to the best of our ability. We aren't scared of losing. Mentally our team is very strong."

While Arthur is right to say this is a new team, there is still a strong element of the past involved, with three survivors from the 1999 campaign in Jacques Kallis, Herschelle Gibbs and Mark Boucher. It is impressive sustainability - few teams can boast such continuity from the late 90s - but even one of those directly involved believes times have changed.

"We have been in a few semis before but there's a different feeling about this team," Boucher said. "We've been through a lot of tests in the last couple of years which we have come through with flying colours. We've handled pressure pretty well and hopefully that is a sign of things to come in the final stages of this tournament."

That confidence is not misplaced, either, after a two-year period where they have confronted and overcome some of cricket's toughest challenges. They have won in Pakistan, Australia and England and drawn in India. Only the home Test series defeat to Australia is a blip.

For a significant portion of their successful run they have used the services of Jeremy Snape, the former England offspinner turned psychologist, and while this very modern of roles is often viewed cynically by former players the current set-up are happy to accept Snape's methods.

"He's been on my couch once or twice," Boucher joked. "There's always something you can learn. I don't think anyone in our side is arrogant enough to think they know too much about the game. We are always welcoming new ideas to move the game forward. He has added a lot of value to our side."

Top Curve
Time for The Gibbs?
  • We've seen Tillakaratne Dilshan's scoop and Mahela Jayawardene's back-of-the bat sweep, but are we in for another new shot? Not wanting to be left behind, Herschelle Gibbs has been working on a few innovations of his own.
  • "It's imperative that you encourage that. Our guys are learning all the time," Mickey Arthur said. "I had a discussion with Herschelle a couple of days ago and he is working on two more shots that he hasn't unveiled yet because he doesn't want to be caught in the pack.
  • "He wants to set himself apart. He doesn't like being upstaged by 'The Dilshan', he wants to get 'The Gibbs' out there."
  • There were no more clues on what the shots entail, so will 'The Gibbs' come out in the semi-final? "Maybe not," Arthur said. "Hopefully he'll save it for Lord's."
Bottom Curve

Snape has come up with the phrase that the chokers have become the stranglers because of the effectiveness of South Africa's bowling attack in tying down the opposition. Bowlers have certainly had their say in this tournament. A score of 160 has proved very defendable and the semi-finalists (with the exception of West Indies) have progressed on the strength of their attacks. And variety has been the key word.

Even South Africa, a team once renowned for fielding an assortment of right-arm pace bowlers, now barely have two of the same kind. There's the pace of Dale Steyn, the left-arm angle of Wayne Parnell, the swing of Kallis, the offspin of Johan Botha and the left-arm spin of Roelof van der Merwe.

"When we were doing our warm-down [following the India game] I said to the guys how playing India in those conditions a few years ago we'd have probably been bowled out for 70 and they'd have got it in three to four overs," Boucher said. "It's great to be in a position where you can rock up to a ground, look at the wicket and know you have all the bases covered."

For Arthur it is the reward for a year's worth of planning. "It's always very pleasing when you sit down and plan and things work. We started this planning when we were over here touring England," he said. "We saw quite a bit of the local Twenty20 on television and saw spin bowlers have a good effect.

"It all came to fruition in the Australia series when we identified pace off the ball as one way of getting amongst them. And all credit to our spinners because they have come in and done the job. Yes, we have backed them, but eventually you need performances and our guys have given us that."

Now the pressure to maintain those performances has risen to another level. Any slip-ups and all that hard work will come to nothing. "We've tried to prepare as though it's any other game," Arthur said. "I don't think we want to put too much emphasis on it being a semi-final."

Andrew McGlashan is assistant editor of Cricinfo