South African sports fans are spoilt for choice at the moment. No sooner has the IPL finished than the British and Irish Lions have started their tour and now their cricket team is in England preparing for the ICC World Twenty20. Such is South Africa's passion for rugby the progress of Graeme Smith's side over the next three weeks may struggle to grab the attention. But they have the chance to cap off a period where they have caused some significant shifts in the world order.
They are now the No. 1 team in one-day cricket after taking that crown off Australia and also pushed them close for the top spot in Tests. With a host of their players having experienced the IPL first hand, they are primed to challenge in the ICC World Twenty20. But South Africa have a history of stalling on the big stage. Their continued success over the last year has helped loosen the chokers tag, yet it will linger until they conquer their World Cup problems.
"It would be lovely if we could be successful in this tournament or any ICC tournament that is coming up," Smith said. "We have had an incredible period in the last 16 months and the team has achieved so much. The confidence is good and we are excited about playing this tournament with the chance to go out and express ourselves. I think there is a lot more talent, flair and confidence among this team than ever before."
South Africa's preparations didn't get off to the best start when they arrived at Southgate, in north London, only to find they were not expected for a training session and had to relocate to Lord's. Smith said he would raise a few issues with the technical committee, but added that the way the team responded shows how focussed they are. "Even today with the not-so-great training facilities we have had all over the place the guys have still applied themselves. There's a good, mature attitude among the squad."
And Smith hopes the IPL experience will benefit his team, especially as a number of players were senior figures with their franchises. "A lot of our players had prominent roles in a number of the teams, which probably wouldn't have happened if it had been in India, and they had good leadership roles among their teams."
During the first World Twenty20 two years ago, in South Africa, one of the most controversial selections by the hosts was to omit allrounder Jacques Kallis. This year he is part of the squad and comes off the back of a useful spell at the IPL where he made 361 runs at 27.76 for Royal Challengers Bangalore.
"Jacques is the one player who arrives here with a point to prove," Smith said. "He had a decent performance in the IPL so is confidence his high and tactically how we use him is important. He's an allrounder and needs to contribute in all forms."
However, Smith himself didn't enjoy as productive a tournament managing 212 runs at 19.27 in his 12 matches for Rajasthan Royals. But he has masses of Twenty20 experience to fall back on including captaining Somerset to the English Twenty20 Cup title in 2005, winning the Pro20 with the Cape Cobras and last year's success with Rajasthan in the inaugural IPL.
"I have a few really good ideas on how to play the game," he said. "The experience as captain plays a key role and I think I have a good grip on the game."
This tournament is the final point in a marathon spell of cricket for the team which has included last year's trips to India and England, back-to-back series against Australia, plus six weeks at the IPL for many of its players, and Smith has called for one last effort from his squad.
"It's been a lengthy period and mental fatigue is probably our biggest challenge and something we have addressed as a team," he said. "Something that we've been really good on is responsibility and professionalism throughout this period. At different times you feel a little jaded, but I think we can find it within us to pick ourselves up for three more weeks."