Under the radar but in-form South Africa exude quiet optimism
No one seems to be talking up South Africa's chances, but Bavuma's side head into the T20 World Cup in very good form
This is the first time South Africa will enter a major tournament completely under the radar. Unlike in the 1992 World Cup, they are not a new inclusion, who the world is waiting to see. Unlike at the 1999 World Cup or 2009 T20 World Cup, they don't appear to have the potential to boss the event and unlike at the 2015 World Cup, theirs is not a squad filled with superstars. This is a group of industrious players, who are considered adequate without being outstanding, and who very few people expect to return home with a trophy. That means the usual World Cup pressure is off, but there are many others to consider.
This is also the first time South Africa are being led in a major tournament by a black African. Temba Bavuma was appointed in March, has enjoyed relative success but is coming into the competition after suffering a broken thumb on South Africa's last tour, to Sri Lanka in August. He is expected to be fully fit for their opening match and will want to lead from the front, especially as he follows a successful first black African rugby captain, Siya Kolisi, under whom South Africa won the 2019 World Cup.
Bavuma's race is important because South Africa have only just begun to reckon with the implications their segregated past has had on this sport and will continue to do so through the tournament. Cricket South Africa's Social Justice and Nation-Building hearings resume on the same day the tournament starts - October 18 - and is expected to provide significant disruption. After a two-month recess, testimony will now be heard from those who were adversely implicated in the first round held between July and August. This includes current director of cricket, Graeme Smith, and the current national coach, Mark Boucher, who has already submitted a responding affidavit.
As good as it can be. South Africa enter this tournament on the back of three successive series wins, albeit that two were not against teams in the main draw. But, say what you like about them beating Ireland and Sri Lanka, you can't scoff at their 3-2 victory over a full-strength West Indies, who are also the defending champions.
South Africa have often appeared a batter short in this format, choosing to fill the XI with bowling options and top-load the line-up with openers. This squad includes four - Bavuma, Quinton de Kock, Aiden Markram and Reeza Hendricks - and there is only room for three in the XI, while being light on middle-order hitters and big-finishers. If the top three or four come off, South Africa have been able to post decent totals and chase targets but if their innings starts poorly, recovery has proved challenging. In particular, the time it takes Rassie van der Dussen to get going and David Miller's form are the biggest concerns.
The era of the fast bowler has evolved into an embrace of the slower stuff for South Africa, and they have included three specialist spinners in this squad. Two of them, Tabraiz Shamsi and Keshav Maharaj, are almost certain starters but none of the trio is a genuine allrounder. Instead, South Africa will choose between seam-bowling allrounders Dwaine Pretorius and Wiaan Mulder, which could only leave room for two out of Kagiso Rabada, Lungi Ngidi and Anrich Nortje. The seamers have all learnt the value of pace off the ball, but they've been criticised for not bowling the yorker to good effect, especially at the end of an innings. And therein lies South Africa's real issue: they have no designated death-bowler, with Andile Phehlukwayo confined to the reserves and Sisanda Magala not picked.
Player to watch
A worthy successor to Imran Tahir, Tabraiz Shamsi has both the crazy celebrations and the ability to control the game and has emerged as South Africa's trump card in shorter formats. Since 2019, Shamsi has enjoyed a more sustained run in the national team and has become consistent in delivering his stock ball while also perfecting his variations, particularly the googly. He has moved from being an out-and-out attacking bowler to one who is comfortable with a containing role if need be. Shamsi is the leading T20I wicket-taker in 2021 and could extend his lead with a good T20 World Cup.
Usually, South Africa go into major tournaments with only this question: Is this the one?
This time, with much less expectation and no one really expecting them to win the tournament, the real question is: how bad could it get? South Africa had their worst result at a major tournament in the 2019 World Cup, which led to Ottis Gibson's termination a brief flirtation with the idea of a team director (Enoch Nkwe was appointed in an interim capacity for the tour to India in 2019) before a coaching overhaul, in which Boucher was installed. It's been a bumpy ride for Boucher with inconsistent results and the shadow of the SJN looming, and a first-round exit could spell trouble for him. On the flip side, if South Africa reach the knockouts and, don't say it too loudly, the final, it could be a major turning point for cricket in this country.
1. Quinton de Kock, 2 Temba Bavuma (capt), 3 Aiden Markram, 4 Rassie van der Dussen, 5 David Miller, 6 Heinrich Klaasen, 7 Wiaan Mulder, 8 Kagiso Rabada, 9 Keshav Maharaj, 10 Anrich Nortje/Lungi Ngidi, 11 Tabraiz Shamsi
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent