South Africa must perform under pressure
When South Africa take on Pakistan in the fifth one-day international in Dubai it will be the first time since 2007 that they are involved in a series decider. Coincidentally, it was also in a series locked at 2-2 against Pakistan that the team last experienced a grand finale, three years ago. If South Africa are looking for good omens, they came out on top that day.
It's an important event for a side that has never been to the final of the World Cup but who has reached the semi-final stage three times. That fact has contributed heavily to South Africa being labelled "chokers", and painted as a team that collapses when the going gets too tough. Now they have an opportunity to perform in a difficult situation, something that the team management sees as a beneficial exercise.
"The pressure is huge," assistant coach Vincent Barnes told ESPNCricinfo, "and it's good that it's like that. It will give our guys, especially the younger ones, some valuable experience as to what tournaments like the World Cup are all about."
The South Africa one-day squad is a different beast to the one it was in 2007. The veteran wicketkeeper Mark Boucher has been replaced behind the stumps by AB de Villiers, Herschelle Gibbs' opening spot has been taken by Hashim Amla and the new-ball pairing of Makhaya Ntini and Shaun Pollock is now the duo of Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel.
Since May this year three new players have been blooded. Batsmen David Miller and Colin Ingram, along with paceman Rusty Theron, have all impressed in the early stages of their careers with Ingram recording a century on debut and Theron taking a five-wicket haul in his second game against Zimbabwe. However, it is this transitional phase that has been tricky to negotiate, more from a bowling perspective than a batting one.
Names such as Andre Nel have faded from memory and the likes of Lonwabo Tsotsobe and Wayne Parnell have been tasked with taking the team forward. Although the bowlers coming through the system are plentiful, it is the area that's been the culprit and landed South Africa in the situation they are in now; tied at 2-2 when they could easily have been 4-0 up. They failed to defend totals of 286 and 274 in the second and fourth ODIs of the current series against Pakistan, losing both matches with a ball to go after their death bowling failed to cope with the pressure.
In those four matches, South Africa have only used the same opening bowling combination in two game when Tsotsobe and Charl Langeveldt played together. In the third match, Langeveldt was dropped, after being taken apart by Abdul Razzaq, and Morkel opened with Tsotsobe. Tsotsobe then had to sit out of the fourth encounter because of back spasms and Parnell opened with Morkel. Steyn, who was out injured until Friday's match, returned and bowled first change but conceded 79 runs.
These musical chairs have been necessary for two reasons: assisting players who are returning from injury and ensuring players get enough game time ahead of the test series which starts next Friday. "We have had some injuries and the injured players have had to have a run, so at times we used different combinations in the series," said Barnes. "Dale and Wayne had to be given a run because they are also part of our Test squad and need to play."
It has meant that South Africa have not found a set game plan for their bowling and, with only six ODIs left before next year's World Cup, are still very much in an experimental phase. Barnes would not be drawn on which combination would play in the decider although it seems that Steyn is a certainty because he needs match time. He also praised the work of Tsotsobe, suggesting he may return if fully fit, and the effort of Theron who bowled the crucial over the third game to secure a two-run victory.
"Dale has a history of being a slow starter, but I was very impressed with his pace and intensity," said Barnes. "He needs a couple of games and he will be back firing on all cylinders. The form of Lopsy has been fantastic and we hope it continues and Rusty has shown he can convert domestic form internationally."
One of the surprises has been Theron only playing in one match, especially with South Africa's problems of closing out an innings. Already in his short career, Theron has displayed the death-bowling skills which made him so successful in the domestic MTN40 and Pro20 last season. His early efforts suggest that South Africa leave him out at their peril as they aim to overcome pressure and shed that dreaded chokers tag.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent