Anybody daring to ask Graeme Smith why South Africa routinely choked in major competitions was best advised to first check their life insurance. The word was on South African cricket's banned list during last year's World Cup and, when it was uttered, Smith bristled in a manner that suggested the conversation was best left unfinished.

"So you have been out in the middle?" Smith railed. "You understand all that? Every time we walk into a press conference, it's the question we expect to get."

It made no difference: South Africa were thrashed by New Zealand in the quarter-final in Mirpur, Smith retired as one-day captain, as he had always planned, after eight years in the job, and even such a redoubtable leader had failed to lead his shrewd, methodical and talented team to a major one-day prize.

AB de Villiers, Smith's replacement as one-day captain, tried a different tack as South Africa arrived in Colombo. Superficially at least, he does not possess Smith's air of defiance, but he could not wait to face down South Africa's past misdemeanours, so much so that if somebody had asked him about the price of mangoes in Pettah Market he would probably have said: "Ah, I know you are secretly referring to choking, and there is something I want to say about this ..."

Few cricket writers know the price of mangoes in Pettah Market but, rightly or wrongly, most think South Africa chokes are ten a penny.

The question was framed innocently enough: "South Africa is a powerhouse when it comes to cricket but, when you enter big tournaments, does it play on your mind that the major trophy remains elusive?"

De Villiers's eyes narrowed. "I am going to be very honest with you," he said. "I am going to put it out there straight up front. We have choked in the past and we know about that - if that's the word you are looking for. It is as simple as that. We have had some really bad experiences in the past but I would like to emphasise that it is past.

"We come in with a whole new look in this team. We have worked really hard with a whole new management team, who have given us a lot of energy and new ideas. We will approach this tournament differently and we would like to win the pressure situations. We are going out there to do exactly that."

Colombo was the scene of one of South Africa's most bewildering defeats of all. Ten years ago, they faced India in the semi-final of the Champions Trophy and were 192 for 1, needing 70 from 14 overs, when Herschelle Gibbs retired with cramp in both hands. The game was theirs, but cramp spread to the entire batting line-up and they lost by 10 runs.

Study a list of South Africa's defeats in major one-day tournaments and there have been as many pseudo chokes as real chokes. Sometimes they have just been outplayed by a better side and the cliché has been levelled at them anyway. There seemed little appetite for bringing the subject up again. Then de Villiers did it anyway.

Smith has surely never felt as much hurt as he did after that New Zealand defeat. He looked mentally and physically broken. "Hopefully in the future somebody will go all the way," Smith said then. That hope now rests with de Villiers. But nobody will really believe it until they see it.