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October 7, 2007
An unusual Test awaits Lahore. To begin with, South Africa are in a position to win a Test series against a major subcontinent side, something that hasn't been the case since 2000. The home side, meanwhile have just one game to square the series and save face.
South Africa were frighteningly efficient in Karachi as expected, but not, as they have often been derided, without some blood, sweat and things that make a soul. Even Jacques Kallis played an innings you could while away an afternoon to. Paul Harris's left-arm and Dale Steyn's right produced surely one of South Africa's most stirring moments in recent Test cricket: a quality spinner at one end and a tearaway at the other. By happy circumstance, neither is the multi-dimensional droid South Africa is renowned for.
So understandably, captain Graeme Smith can afford to smile, even over a few niggles. Speaking on the eve of the match, Smith said, "Ashwell [Prince] has a stomach problem and [Andre] Nel has a groin problem, but everyone will hopefully come up for selection."
They will because, as Smith points out, much is at stake. South Africa have won nine out of 25 Tests in this region since readmission, but a seven-year itch does strange things. "We have come here to win Tests. A win in the subcontinent is extra special because we've only had a few since readmission. We've given ourselves a great chance of winning a series here and it's something we are hungry to achieve."
The plans will be much the same. Runs from the top order and a solid base to build on; then repel Pakistan's spin, which they did so imposingly last week. "We play spinners very well and score runs against them now at will," Smith said. The rest of it they will leave to confidence. "We have to play positive cricket. Even if we do have a change, it will be a bowler for a bowler and no extra bat."
But Lahore will also be unusual because it is the 'Inzamam Test.' The Gadaffi Stadium may have the opportunity to bid farewell to possibly the greatest batsman to have lumbered across this soil. Smith reckons Inzamam's farewell might be a distraction to Pakistan . But the point he chose not to highlight, one his counterpart Shoaib Malik was keen to highlight, was that it brings to the middle, where it matters, beef. The return of Inzamam-ul-Haq and Mohammad Yousuf reunites, for the last time, possibly the best middle-order Pakistan has had in recent times.
"We are determined to win this Test," Malik said. "Inzamam's return will not be a distraction. Along with Yousuf, it will bolster our middle-order. We are all professionals and we know what we need to do. The morale is high and just having Inzamam around, my confidence has gone up. He is an encouragement, not a distraction."
Tomorrow is the beginning of the end of a special age for Pakistan, the
last link to a World Cup win and the 90s, which were both the best of
times and the worst
Malik is not the first Pakistan captain, nor will he be the last, to rue the consequences of poor fielding. Who knows how Karachi would've ended had Kallis or Hashim Amla been dismissed when they were kind enough to offer chances, but those chances mean that Malik remains one of the few recent captains to invest so much in spin. "We have other options but this attack can get 20 wickets. In Karachi, we would've had 20 had we held on to our chances."
The pitch might force his hand for unusually, it has a bit of bounce. There was grass on it, but Smith smirked as it had already been shaved twice. "There is certainly a little bit of bounce and what grass there is will probably become brown," Smith said. "We can exploit that."
What he might also exploit, worryingly, is the pressure on Malik. Only in his second Test and already presiding over a testy press conference, he chided the media for being the media and snapped back at several questions. Also unusual, for personally he had a good Test in Karachi and is, to most appearances, amiable, gentle and cool-headed.
He could do worse than to look at Smith, also a young player thrust into the captaincy at a time of change. He too has had his problems but stands now on the edge of a special win. "It has taken three years to build a team and provide options where I can now challenge myself as a captain," Smith said. "Slowly we have started to get an environment from where you can challenge other teams in the world."
Tomorrow is the beginning of the end of a special age for Pakistan, the last link to a World Cup win and the 90s, which were both the best of times and the worst. Malik will duly acknowledge it, but what better way to plot another age than with a win?
South Africa - Graeme Smith (capt), Herschelle Gibbs, Jacques Kallis, Hashim Amla, Ashwell Prince, AB de Villiers, Mark Boucher, Andre Nel, Makhaya Ntini, Dale Steyn, Paul Harris
Pakistan - Salman Butt, Kamran Akmal (wk), Younis Khan, Mohammad Yousuf, Inzamam-ul-Haq, Misbah-ul-Haq, Shoaib Malik (capt), Abdur Rehman, Umar Gul, Danish Kaneria, Mohammad Asif
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