Pakistan v South Africa, 5th ODI, Lahore October 29, 2007

Passing on the choker tag

Pakistan threw it all away in a manner to rival the best efforts of their opponents, South Africa



Pakistan lost as their batsmen succumbed to panic in sight of victory © AFP

Will the real, true chokers please stand up? South Africa have, fairly or not, acquired a bit of a reputation for choking during big moments over the last decade. If they're not careful, then after their final lapses in the ICC World Twenty20 and this loss here, Pakistan might catch up and even surpass that reputation.

Six wickets for 20 runs in 36 balls when the game was all but wrapped up is a collapse that 1990s Pakistan would've been proud of. You'd like to think that it was a magical, spectacular burst of reverse swing that did Pakistan in, much as it did many of Pakistan's opponents - including South Africa - many times in the past.

But this fall was sparked by ostensibly far more mundane, constant ingredients. Albie Morkel, Makhaya Ntini and gang bowled with discipline and much commitment, nothing more. The fielding was outstanding - within context, AB de Villiers' catch to dismiss Shahid Afridi will be difficult to better - but an equal accomplice was the batting born of supreme panic.

Among the many concerns Pakistan take from this series straight in to India, the batting will be the biggest. They tried, tinkered, tampered and twiddled through this series but failed to find an opening pair that could provide more than a 42-run start. The only time the batting has looked calm, in control and secure is when Younis Khan, Mohammad Yousuf and to an extent Shoaib Malik have been at the crease. Once they fell today, the terror was tangible, as Graeme Smith expertly recognised: "Yousuf and Younis are the lifeline of their batting." To burden them so, continually, will tell at some point because beyond them, Pakistan are on a wing and a prayer.

Shoaib Akhtar's return and Rao Iftikhar Anjum's growth has given the attack a healthier feel no doubt; one plus point from this decider's debris in fact was the restriction of South Africa without Umar Gul and Mohammad Asif. But it will matter little if Kamran Akmal continues to flounder. Where South Africa held all of what came their way, Akmal dropped Jacques Kallis on 2. It was a chance Geoffrey Boycott's mother would've fancied. That fluff apart, Pakistan's fielding wasn't poor today, but it has fluctuated wildly and in no discipline is that a good trait.

Yet Pakistan's ills should take nothing away from South Africa, for you will not find more deserving winners. Right through this tour, they have wanted every session, every day, every match just that much more. They have planned well and executed even better.

Their top order has ground out runs, blasted them and stolen them with discipline and fair verve. Unlike Pakistan they have done so as a group. Where five of their batsmen have made at least a fifty and two have made hundreds, only three Pakistan batsmen scored fifties. South Africa have played on wickets they clearly dislike yet have countered whatever the conditions have flung their way.

Their bowlers have followed, even in defeat. Collectively, they bowled two no-balls over five matches. Pakistan bowled two no-balls before the first over ended in today's match. Pakistan gave away 52 wides and no-balls, South Africa just 29 and in the decider, where it mattered the most they gave away seven. Pakistan conceded ten extras, and with the one dropped chance, duly wrote away a series win.

An unbelievable win, Graeme Smith rightly called it and a stepping stone to the future. More wins like this and the choker tag may not stick around so stubbornly. For Pakistan, a fresh era could not have started in a more worrying fashion. With India and Australia to come, where pressure will be greater even than it was today, it is unlikely to get any easier.

Osman Samiuddin is the Pakistan editor of Cricinfo

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