Stage set for a winner-take-all contest
Until a few days ago, with so much off-field drama engulfing the side, Bob Woolmer might have felt as if he was watching a soap opera. Now, after Pakistan's superb win in the first game and inconsistent showing in the second, he said it felt as if the television transmission had gone off. "It's like the sign you see on the TV set: 'Normal service will resume shortly'. Just that you don't know when."
The good news is that even their opponents do not have a clue when the transmission is going to return. Graeme Smith termed Pakistan as "volatile one day, superb the next" but it's a fact that's both encouraging and worrying. The batch of 1992 - that poached the World Cup from under several teams' noses and laughed all the way to the bank - were termed a "skilled rabble" and few would want to contradict that.
The unfortunate part for this team is that without Inzamam-ul-Haq - a colossal figure by any standards - and two of their frontline fast bowlers, they're a bit short on skills. Woolmer can only hope. "If we're looking ahead to the World Cup, we need to be far more consistent. It's like you scale an incline on one day and then sit back and relax a bit. We're working on it and hopefully you'll see the results on the pitch."
It's not going to be easy, especially with South Africa "feeling at home" with the conditions. "We were quite surprised the way the nets played today," Smith admitted, "with the carry and the juice. It was similar to being back home again. The wicket played very well last night, so it's very exciting."
Amid all this excitement lies a danger, one that the Pakistan fast bowlers fell prey to in the latter part of the innings against New Zealand on Wednesday. Smith understands it all too well. "Tomorrow, with the extra bounce, we hope we don't get gung-ho," he continued, "you can lose a plot a bit and we've discussed it. Our bowling attack has taken a lot of confidence from the last game and we've come to a wicket with some pace and bounce, something we're used to. Makhaya [Ntini] bowled superbly with Shaun [Pollock] the other night - he was quick and his lines were superb to the two left-handers."
And then there's the dew, the tournament's most prominent 12th man. If it's been a hindrance for a few teams, with their spinners unable to grip the ball, it was an advantage for South Africa at Ahmedabad, with their fast bowlers generating extra zip off the track. Smith agreed but added that it wouldn't have been possible without their bowlers striking early. "Both teams [Sri Lanka at Ahmedabad and Pakstan yesterday] had lost their top order before the 20th over. So that allows you to be a bit more aggressive. If teams get off to a good start, it's tough to be aggressive with the dew. You need to come up with game-plans."
At some level this may be the battle of the game-plans. Woolmer, having coached South Africa for four years, will know a thing or two about their methods. He's been closely involved with five players - Herschelle Gibbs, Jacques Kallis, Mark Boucher, Ntini and Pollock - and he would no doubt understand the intensity that South Africa are likely to come out with. It's virtually a quarterfinal but, when he switches on the television set at 2:30pm tomorrow afternoon, Woolmer will hope for the Pakistan soap opera to resume. After all, it's been the story of the tournament.
South Africa (likely)
1 Graeme Smith (capt), 2 Boeta Dippenaar, 3 Herschelle Gibbs, 4 Jacques Kallis, 5 AB de Villiers, 6 Justin Kemp, 7 Mark Boucher (wk), 8 Shaun Pollock, 9 Andrew Hall, 10 Andre Nel, 11 Makhaya Ntini
1 Imran Farhat, 2 Mohammad Hafeez, 3 Younis Khan (capt), 4 Mohammad Yousuf, 5 Shahid Afridi, 6 Shoaib Malik, 7 Abdul Razzaq, 8 Kamran Akmal (wk), 9 Rana Naved-ul-Hasan, 10 Umar Gul, 11 Rao Iftikhar Anjum.
Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is staff writer of Cricinfo