Can you feel the ghosts in the machine yet? Creeping out of the nooks and crannies of Eden Gardens, the most perfect venue imaginable for a contest that can barely move for historical baggage. It's Australia versus South Africa in a World Cup semi-final. And if the mere thought of what's to come hasn't got your spine tingling in anticipation, then you're surely dead inside.
Forget everything you think you know about form and fortune, and the fallacy that the best team will always win on the day. Embrace instead a scenario in which every twitch of South Africa's muscle memory (because, let's face it, this is all about them) will feel as though it is attached to invisible strings, dragging their efforts backwards through space and time … through 2015, through 2007, through 2003. Through 1999 and 1992 … and back into the formless void from whence all of their World Cup agonies first sprung.
It's grotesquely unfair. It is history written as premonition. It's a thousand "I told you sos" chanting in unison at the inevitable moment when South Africa's dream of World Cup glory dies another ugly and undignified death. But make no mistake, that's the baggage that Temba Bavuma's team will be obliged to drag with them to the middle on Thursday. In this contest, of all contests, they don't get the luxury of tuning out the doubts and the doubters.
For facing them down will be cricket's most storied champions, Australia, the acid test that every contender seems obliged to pass if they hope to lay claim to the crown. With five titles to their name, and just four knockout losses in 18 such matches since the very first semi-final in 1975, Australia's presence on these occasions comes almost to them as a birthright.
Since 1992, no team has won a World Cup without eliminating them first - and even Pakistan's group-stage victory that year proved to be a de facto quarter-final. Sri Lanka denied them in the 1996 final, before India and England dethroned them in 2011 and 2019 respectively. Come through this one and, notwithstanding India's runaway form in the other side of the draw, South Africa will be entitled to believe that their name is on the trophy.
That is not to say that South Africa should be considered rank outsiders, far from it. Uniquely among Australia's opponents across the entire history of ODI cricket, they boast a positive win-loss record (55 to 50), which includes 15 victories in their last 18 meetings and a group-stage thumping in Lucknow, only last month.
They won seven of their nine group games here (the same as their opponents) and racked up four totals in excess of 350 - more than any other side, including a market-leading 428 for 5 against Sri Lanka in Delhi, which is also the highest score ever made at a World Cup. And, if they win the toss and bat first, they will be able to lean into a formula for batting dominance that no team - not even India - has yet surpassed.
They've got form, they've got confidence … but they've also got history, as their opponents will be only too happy to remind them. Even South Africa's happiest memories of Eden Gardens - from their redemptive tour in November 1991, when Clive Rice released doves into the Calcutta air to mark South Africa's return from sporting isolation - seem to have been man-marked by Australian one-upmanship. Four years prior to that occasion, and almost to the day, Allan Border had been hoisted onto his team-mates' shoulders and paraded across the same turf, after laying claim to the first of Australia's five titles.
What South Africa would give for their first … instead, their barren cabinet is feeling all the more sparse right now, in light of the knockout magnificence that took place in Paris only last month. Since their own return to the international stage, South Africa's rugby team has endured none of the angst that has stalked their cricketers - winning four World Cups in eight since victory at the first attempt in 1995 - and in holding their nerve across three consecutive one-point wins in this year's quarter, semi and final, they proved with unhelpful clarity just what it takes to show bottle in the clutch moments.
As with so many other aspects of this unfeasibly vast occasion, the dream for South Africa is only ever a tick away from becoming a living nightmare. All things being equal, Bavuma, their first black cricket captain, is two matches away from emulating his rugby counterpart Siya Kolisi, and providing the Rainbow Nation with the most joyous photo pairing since Nelson Mandela embraced Francois Pienaar at Ellis Park.
But Bavuma, already under scrutiny due to a fallow run of form, is labouring with a hamstring strain that, through no fault of his own, raises agonising echoes of South Africa's subplot in the 2015 semi-final, when an unfit Vernon Philander was forced into the line-up ahead of the in-form Kyle Abbott. And as if that spectre of past failings wasn't enough to have weighing on the players' minds, it might also rain on Thursday … it's all a bit too spooky if you ask me.
At this point, it's only polite to point out that there will, in fact, be two teams competing for progression to Sunday's final in Ahmedabad, and such is Australia's enduring quality on the world stage, it might not be sufficient for South Africa to simply vanquish their internal demons.
From a stuttering start, with two losses on the bounce, Australia's march to seven wins in a row has been ominous in the extreme. David Warner has unfurled his full stage presence as he enters the final weeks of his one-day career, producing a body of work that matches up even to the four-times centurion Quinton de Kock, while Mitchell Marsh and Glenn Maxwell's top notes of destruction have secured Australia each of the two highest individual scores of the tournament, and the fastest century too - trumping the previous marks set by de Kock and Aiden Markram.
They carry an air of entitlement into this contest that is surely worth a hundred-run start, not to mention the sure knowledge that, in each of their two previous semi-final clashes, in 1999 and 2007, they marched past their bereft opponents and all the way to glory. As if they didn't know it already, South Africa need to produce the game of their lives on Thursday, and then some. It may seem cruel, but those are the rules of this particular engagement. And they were written long before many of these players were born.
Australia WWWWW (last five completed matches, most recent first) South Africa WLWWW
In the spotlight: Heinrich Klaasen and Adam Zampa
Until it was trumped by the most extraordinary ODI innings of all time, it was hard to imagine how Heinrich Klaasen's blistering century against England at the Wankhede could possibly be bettered in this tournament. Much like the Maxwell masterpiece that surpassed it in the wow stakes, Klaasen's 109 from 67 balls was characterised by riotous hitting in the face of physical debilitation, with the air in Mumbai that day thick enough to "eat" as Joe Root evocatively put it after England's agenda-setting rout.
More important than the runs he scored, however, was the statement that Klaasen's display made. He had come into the World Cup as the most talked-about batter in ODI cricket, particularly after the smackdown he laid on Australia in Centurion in the weeks leading up to the tournament. His 174 from 83 balls that day included - alongside David Miller - an eye-watering 173 in the final ten overs of the innings. That Mumbai innings, and his follow-up 90 from 49 against Bangladesh, was early evidence that South Africa's build-steady-charge-hard style would not be cowed on the big stage. If his returns have tailed off a touch since, the threat he poses has not.
It's easy to forget now, amid the stellar returns that have come Adam Zampa's way, that the Australia legspinner endured a deeply uncomfortable start to his campaign. After a wicketless opening match against India, he was belted for 70 runs in ten overs during South Africa's group-stage victory in Lucknow, with the solitary scalp of Rassie van der Dussen coming in his 15th over of the tournament. Since then his returns have gone into overdrive - 21 further wickets in 61 subsequent overs across seven consecutive wins - with his superb control of line, length and variation making any attacking motive fraught with danger. Nevertheless, South Africa had his number once before. They'll have to believe they can find it again.
Team news: Labuschagne over Stoinis, SA wait on Bavuma
Neither Marnus Labuschagne nor Marcus Stoinis made it to the middle in Australia's crushing victory over Bangladesh in their final group game, but only one of them will feature in Kolkata, given the inevitable return of the game-changing Maxwell. The explosive success of their batting in recent outings means that Labuschagne's Test tempo should be trusted to do a job, and offer ballast to the middle order alongside Steve Smith, thereby freeing up the men around them to keep blazing as they've seen fit.
Australia (probable): 1 David Warner, 2 Travis Head, 3 Mitchell Marsh, 4 Steven Smith, 5 Marnus Labuschagne, 6 Josh Inglis (wk), 7 Glenn Maxwell, 8 Pat Cummins (capt), 9 Mitchell Starc, 10 Adam Zampa, 11 Josh Hazlewood
A decision will be made on Bavuma prior to the toss, as he sweats on a hamstring strain that has quietly overshadowed his team's entire build-up. Reeza Hendricks is a very capable understudy, of course, and made 85 against England when Bavuma was once again absent, but the optics of the captain's potential absence from a World Cup semi-final transcend the nitty-gritty of mere sporting matters. The team's equilibrium is not helped by similar concerns surrounding Lungi Ngidi, who twice failed to complete his overs against India and Afghanistan while struggling with an ankle issue. He has been passed fit, but could yet make way for Gerald Coetzee, with Tabraiz Shamsi seemingly inked in for what is expected to be a turning pitch, alongside Keshav Maharaj, whose ascension to the ICC's No. 1 ranking is a pre-match vote of confidence. Andile Phehlukwayo is also in contention, potentially in place of Marco Jansen, whose devastating impact when on song has been offset by two notably off-days against Sri Lanka and India, in which he was twice taken for more than 90 runs.
South Africa (probable): 1 Quinton de Kock (wk), 2 Temba Bavuma (capt)/Reeza Hendricks, 3 Rassie van der Dussen, 4 Aiden Markram, 5 Heinrich Klaasen, 6 David Miller, 7 Marco Jansen/Andile Phehlukwayo, 8 Keshav Maharaj, 9 Kagiso Rabada, 10 Lungi Ngidi/Gerald Coetzee, 11 Tabraiz Shamsi
Pitch and conditions
Another black-soil surface at Eden Gardens promises turn for the spinners and sluggish but true bounce for the quicks, if the events of England's group-stage win over Pakistan are anything to go by. The X-factor on this occasion could be the weather, with rain potentially entering the equation, depending on which app you use for your radar. There is, at least, a reserve day, so South Africa should be spared some of the permutation-based agonies that have chequered their World Cup history. "We'll turn up expecting to play a 50-over match tomorrow," Pat Cummins, Australia's captain, said. "If that shifts on us, we can adjust as needed. It feels like it hasn't really rained here for the last couple of months, so to see the weather looking like that for two days is not ideal."
Stats and trivia
Australia and South Africa have played each other on seven previous occasions at World Cups, and their recent is, on the face of it, an even split. Three wins each and one infamous tie, at Edgbaston in 1999.
However, in their two World Cup knockout encounters, the semi-finals in 1999 and 2007, Australia have come through on each occasion, and gone on to lift the trophy each time.
In their overall head-to-head in ODIs, South Africa have a slight edge - with 55 wins to Australia's 50, including their very first meeting at the 1992 World Cup, and 15 wins in their last 18 meetings, dating back to September 2016.
Maxwell needs 108 runs to reach 4000 in ODIs, while Warner needs 104 to reach 7000.
With 22 wickets to date, Zampa needs six more in a maximum of two games to set a new record for a single World Cup, beating the 27 that his team-mate Mitchell Starc claimed in 2019.
"It's hard to speak on their behalf, but I do know each World Cup, it does seem to be the story that South Africa haven't quite achieved, obviously, what they set out to do." Australia's captain Pat Cummins drops a subtle hint about his opponents' record in knockout matches
"There's a sense of calmness within the team and obviously the normal level of anxiety that you would expect of going into the game tomorrow. But I think we'll take a lot of confidence with our performances up until this point. But yeah, I don't think I'll be going around giving guys hugs." Temba Bavuma, South Africa's captain, is keeping the emotions in check ahead of the big match