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October 25, 2007
A pattern has begun to emerge in this engaging joust. Wickets look as if they'll leak runs except they don't. South Africa, setting or chasing targets, start well only to get bogged down in the face of Pakistan' twin spin stranglers and in that middle period, the game is effectively decided. Pakistan have reduced it to this simple equation and if it comes off tomorrow, then considerable hope will have been salvaged from a series, and era, that stuttered at the start.
There are other themes floating around this pattern of course, which may or may not have a role to play; Shahid Afridi will have a role, in success or failure; South Africa's middle order, including Jacques Kallis, can't surely misfire in another match; Pakistan's fielding, on which so much hinges, has been clownish one day, supreme the next and who knows what tomorrow; a lonesome Johan Botha's failure to take a wicket or indeed exert any real pressure.
Mickey Arthur believes there is no great mystery why his side are trailing. Forget pitches, forget security distractions: "No excuses, Pakistan have played better than we have over the last two games."
Granted security concerns mightn't have been a distraction - though people have been quick to note that their losses have come after the Karachi bombings - but surely the pitches have played their part? Why shouldn't they, asked Arthur? Home advantage is there to be utilised.
"It's the same when we are home and we play on bouncy pitches because that plays into our hands. Pakistan are playing with slow pitches which have turn so they've used home conditions. We have to come up with a plan to counter it."
Central to any counter-attack must be Jacques Kallis who has scored 400 runs less than he did in the Test series: 21 from three innings. Barring a battling 42 in the last match, Justin Kemp has also struggled. "Our middle order has struggled in those middle overs but hats off to Pakistan. They've bowled really well. We'll come up with a plan to tackle. Jacques is a fantastic player and we are backing him to come out and score tomorrow."
Kemp, as the murmurs go, may not be as lucky in which case JP Duminy may sneak in. If it happens, then the two sides will be playing without their vice-captains - Kemp and Salman Butt, who has not featured in the series so far.
Record-loving fans will be pleased to know that Shoaib Malik's press conference was perhaps the shortest in the history of such things. But that is to be taken as a positive sign for it suggests that all questions are being asked of South Africa currently, literally and figuratively.
Mohammad Asif is still unlikely to play, though with Umar Gul and Iftikhar Anjum so confident, now is perhaps the only time Pakistan can afford to not worry so much about it. In fact, Abdur Rehman's little groin niggle is probably, in the current context, a bigger concern. He has played his role admirably during the middle overs in this series and Malik will hope he overcomes an early morning fitness test, more so as the only other replacements in the squad are discarded openers. While he's at it, Malik might also hope that Younis Khan adds runs to the considerable sum of his presence on the field; he hasn't struggled like Kallis, but has only 54 runs to show.
But really, the ball is in South Africa's court. Andre Nel will play tomorrow and Charl Langeveldt could make way. Do South Africa wish they had another spinning option, given the way the series has panned out? "Two spinners is debatable," insisted Arthur.
"Pitches in Pakistan before have been good, with bounce and a little bit of pace. After the first match Pakistan were under pressure, they realised their strengths were in spin. They've prepared wickets according to that. Whether those wickets are good in the long-run is debatable but we have to counter it."
They must do it tomorrow if they are to maintain their record of never having lost a bilateral ODI series against Pakistan. "We're hugely focused to pull it back," said Arthur. "We've set our team big goals on this trip and we've ticked the box in terms of the Tests. We want to go home with the ODI series as well so we're really focused. It's a final for us, a do-or-die game."
Pakistan (probable): Yasir Hameed, Shahid Afridi, Younis Khan, Mohammad Yousuf, Shoaib Malik (capt), Misbah-ul-Haq, Kamran Akmal (wk), Abdur Rehman, Sohail Tanvir, Rao Iftikhar Anjum, Umar Gul
South Africa (probable): Graeme Smith (capt), Herschelle Gibbs, Jacques Kallis, AB de Villiers, JP Duminy, Mark Boucher (wk), Shaun Pollock, Albie Morkel, Johan Botha, Andre Nel, Makhaya Ntini
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