South Africa depart with understated expectations

Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis in conversation during a practice session AFP

The hotel adjacent to Johannesburg's international airport is familiar with South African cricket's expectations. Whenever the team departs on an overseas assignment, they hold their media engagements in one of its conference rooms.

At such times the room is filled with a great sense of hope. Over the last two years, it has heard men like Corrie van Zyl and Graeme Smith talk about their goals, and make promises to bring back something for the South African public to be proud of. More times than not, they have fulfilled those aspirations.

The only time they have let the fans down is after major tournaments. So much so, that the hotel is also used to South African cricket's disappointment, because it is the same venue used for the press conference when they return home.

If the wood panelled walls could talk, they would tell of words like "dark mist," which Gary Kirsten used after the team returned empty handed after the 2012 World Twenty20. He did not make the mistake of saying this time will be different.

"I couldn't tell you we are going to win the event but we will give it our best shot," Kirsten said. "I don't do this job to win trophies even though I know I am measured by that. I love the work. I am trying to make the team the best they can be. If that ends in us making more progress than we have in previous knockout tournaments, I will be happy."

For the first time in recent memory, South Africa embarked on an ICC tournament without pledging to come back winners. It was a sobering status update: this team are not favourites.

They are without two of their most important players in Jacques Kallis and Graeme Smith. They have a leader and wicketkeeper who is still finding his feet in AB de Villiers. A middle order with two players, Faf du Plessis and JP Duminy, who have not been active in weeks. A coach that will soon be on the way out come August, and a squad that has not been together in almost two months. So to expect them to come back with the trophy may be a little too much to expect.

Kirsten is not talking a big game because he doesn't have too much to advertise. All he hopes is that South Africa give a respectable account of themselves, and that amounts to enough for the people back home. "We're going to use the processes that we've used throughout the two years, which has brought us some good success in the Test arena. We are going to build on that as much as possible. There is no success package on the market that we can use to win. You need a bit of luck and [for] things to go your way. I am confident that we can compete."

In an attempt to replicate the results they produced on their tour of England last year, South Africa will once again enlist the services of explorer Mike Horn to be with the team while they spend five days in Amsterdam. Even though the team will only have half the time there with Horn, and have to play a warm-up match against the Netherlands on Friday, Kirsten hopes the camp will have a similar effect on the group.

"We will spend the majority of the time doing skills work. It will be important for guys who have played in the IPL to bring match intensity. We will rely on them heavily for that. We will also use the time to get out of the hype of the tournament in the UK," he said. "The significance of the Switzerland journey was the way we were able to pull together as a team. We're looking forward to being together again."

The squad that will assemble in the Netherlands on Monday is a very different unit to the one that beat England in a three-Test series last year. It does not have the same edge of experience, but it does carry great potential. Whether that will bear fruit this time around remains to be seen.

What Kirsten said is that he cannot guarantee it will, and he does not think South Africa cricket will be in crisis if it does not. The room at the hotel will be waiting to bear witness as to whether a less pressurised approach will work this time.