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Low expectations not a worry for chilled-out South Africa

Lungi Ngidi celebrates a wicket AFP

Admit it. If you're not South African - and maybe even if you are - South Africa have kind of slipped under your radar.

Sure, you're excited about Kagiso Rabada and Lungi Ngidi. You're hoping dearly that Dale Steyn will be fit again, one last time.

Your respect for Hash is so vast that you feel like he, more than any other professional sportsperson, deserves a global trophy. Quinton, you remember whenever you see him, is a genuine white-ball monster who isn't celebrated as much as he should be. Imran gives so much to everything he does and now he's going and he should get some back. And Faf is probably your favourite captain if Kane Williamson doesn't exist.

Right about now, putting all these feelings together, you're probably wondering why you don't see them as dead-on for the last four. India walk into it. England break the door down to it. Australia, you've cottoned on, have a better team than you were led to believe this time last year. And it's tournament play, so those five World Cup wins must mean something. So those three for sure.

Then, you think, New Zealand are too good to not get there. And West Indies are turning 50-over batting into a Twenty20 innings times two plus 10 and they've won two World T20s and have the game's most explosive player. And aren't Pakistan on exactly the kind of 123-game losing streak that means they win this whole thing?

Which leaves South Africa where? The default is: It's South Africa! This is a World Cup! They'll find a way to not win it, but they'll get close. They always do. Except this time, it's not the default. It's not really what you're thinking.

It's an unusual position for them to be in, for you to not be thinking about them as one of the favourites. South Africa are, famously, an in-between-World-Cups side: great records between tournaments, which end up obliterated by one game.

Between the 1996 and 1999 World Cups, for example, they had the best win-loss ratio of any side, by far, which meant zilch when Lance Klusener took off for that run. Between that World Cup and 2003 their win-loss ratio was second only to an all-time great Australia side and they still couldn't read a DLS par scoresheet. Second-best again between that World Cup and the next one, and undone by themselves in St Lucia. Second-best side on win-loss until 2011 and you probably don't even remember how they fluffed it then (Jesse Ryder, Jacob Oram and Nathan McCullum, if you're curious).

They arrive this time with only the third-best win-loss ratio since Grant Elliott ruined their happiness and, as the childhood rhyme has it, third is the one with the hairy chest and nothing else. Mine a little deeper, and you'll see that their record against the six top-ranked sides in that time is 25 wins and 19 losses. A winning record is a winning record but South Africa used to boss these numbers.

The bowling should be able to look after itself against most teams, but you wonder sometimes about the batting, reliant heavily at the moment on de Kock, Faf and David Miller. But the thing is, they don't seem to mind at all that they're not rated. They're not going to have Steyn for probably the first two games and if Ottis Gibson is panicking, he's hiding it damn well.

Hashim Amla's form since the start of 2018 is patchy and Gibson's very chill about it: "Hashim is Hashim. He's played well. He's had a little dip in form."

Gibson was even talking candidly about the possibility of losing the tournament opener on Thursday. It's just one game out of nine, or 11; you want to start well, but it doesn't matter what happens in this game; if not Thursday, then we have another game Sunday and so on.

He is right. The format is such that a first-day loss is hardly terminal. But hello? What's really happening here? This is South Africa, who bring 200% intensity and 300% focus to rock, paper, scissors; who come like highly-strung balls of tension, bouncing off the walls waiting to implode or explode.

The trick Gibson could be playing is on his opponents and former employers. England are the ones under the spotlight. Hosts. Favourites. Number one side. They make the play on Thursday. They're the ones with most to lose.

"I heard somewhere that both of my two very good friends [James] Anderson and [Stuart] Broad have said that England have to do something really bad to not win this World Cup," Gibson said. "As far as they are concerned, England have won it already.

"So we just have to turn up and play. If we play our best, if it's not good enough on Thursday, then we have another game on Sunday, then Thursday, and we go on in the tournament. Our aim is to be in the tournament at the back end. That's why playing England in the first game - obviously it's still a big game - but if we don't win that game, it doesn't matter because we got other games and we can still have a really strong impact on this tournament."

It's a smart play. Don't aim low, but don't - publicly at least - aim too high. Let expectations be other people's problems. Sit back, let the tournament wash over you, rather than you diving into it, all manic. Stay under that radar.