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October 22, 2007
Faisalabad's Iqbal Stadium provides one of the more festive cricket-watching experiences in Pakistan. With a capacity of 19,000 - packed even during bore run-fests such as the India-Pakistan 2006 Test - it is no heaving amphitheatre of sport, but its openness provides a delightful personal interaction with the contest.
If you sit right, you can ask a fast bowler at the top of his run what he'll bowl next; as a spectator you are expected to double as a fielder anywhere around the ground. The amusement park within the complex helps with the merriment. If the swing is timed right, the pirate ship should allow a decent if intermittent view of the game. Next door is an auditorium named after one of Faisalabad's most famous product, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan; a stadium named after a poet and an auditorium next to it named after a qawwal means the venue must be one of the more artistically-inclined around the world.
What happens on the field tomorrow, between South Africa and Pakistan, should add to the festivities. If we ignore last year's ODI against West Indies (when Pakistan lost eight wickets chasing 152), the pitch is traditionally partial to runs. Mickey Arthur, South Africa's coach, didn't see anything in the 22-yard pale brown strip contrary to that belief. Add small boundaries and big hitters to the mix and a typically modern, run-heavy ODI awaits.
"It looks like a very good deck. Much fresher than the last wicket we played on and we're quite happy about that," said Arthur. Criticising a pitch that produced over 500 runs and a century is a peculiarly contemporary condition but middle-overs spin, on a used surface, stumped South Africa as much as six wickets between two fast bowlers.
But that has been South Africa's only aberration through a commanding tour. And despite the loss, there remain few real concerns with morale or personnel. "We played really well through the tour and we had a little stutter at Lahore," said Arthur. "We've set ourselves extremely high goals through this competition. We've set our team high standards and we need to maintain those standards. Lifting the boys after that loss will be no issue."
Arthur admitted, at a push, that only one position is under scrutiny, without revealing further, but also added, "we'll probably given them a chance again." Such is the mood that not even poor returns from Jacques Kallis and Justin Kemp (1 and 8 in the two ODIs) is a worry just yet. "I don't foresee too many changes. We want to be pretty consistent. Our top order has been good. We didn't get the start we wanted in Lahore. Everybody has performed their roles to their abilities.
"We've asked Kemp to bat at 5. It's a role he knows and he can fulfill. He is wasted down the order as he gives us major impetus if he bats a long time. He's done really well for us of late and we're going to give him every opportunity to cement that position."
Despite levelling the series, a few issues remain to be resolved for Pakistan. From the top, Yasir Hameed is likely to replace Imran Nazir as a partner for Kamran Akmal, the third different combination in three matches. A more deserving change is hard to imagine: 41, 57, 71, 41, 10, 50 and 22 are Hameed's last seven ODI innings (at number three admittedly) for Pakistan and yet, bewilderingly, the appearances are stretched out over 30 months.
If picked, however, an opportunity presents itself for Pakistan are thinking long-term. "We have made so many changes because we have an important tour to India coming up," said Shoaib Malik. "We are trying to find the right combination before then."
Apart from probably being without Mohammad Asif (he is to undergo a late fitness test), which is a sizeable headache, Pakistan's other problem far predates the opening worry. As a unit, their ground fielding has been noticeably sharper but they dropped five catches in their win on Saturday.
"Straight after we got here yesterday, we came and worked on our fielding," Malik said. As well they should for winning games after fluffing that many chances happens about as often as a fair and free election in Pakistan.
The series is now primed to tilt one or the other way; a win here could well be decisive with only two to play after it. "This is a vital match," Malik acknowledged. "Whichever team wins it will take a definite edge for the remainder of the series."
Pakistan (probable) Yasir Hameed, Kamran Akmal (wk), Younis Khan,Mohammad Yousuf, Shoaib Malik (capt), Misbah-ul-Haq, Shahid Afridi, Sohail Tanvir, Abdur Rehman, Rao Iftikhar Anjum, Umar Gul.
South Africa (probable) Herschelle Gibbs, Graeme Smith (capt), Jacques Kallis, AB de Villiers, Justin Kemp, Mark Boucher (wk), Shaun Pollock, Albie Morkel, Johan Botha, Makhaya Ntini, Charl Langeveldt.
Plays of the day from the fifth ODI in Ranchi
Shorter tours don't allow you time to get into form, and domestic cricket isn't demanding enough