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October 28, 2007
Two-all with the decider to play: from a five-match series you can't ask for much more. But that scoreline also suggests more excitement and greater parity perhaps than has been witnessed in Lahore, Faisalabad and Multan. No doubt it's been an engaging series but one without a definitive, crackling, edge-of-the-seat, I-was-there contest. One chance remains and if Shoaib Akhtar returns, the Gaddafi Stadium might just get it.
First to South Africa, however, and if Makhaya Ntini is any indicator of the mood in the camp, then they are both jolly and confident. Pakistan's training began with an eclectic background score, courtesy Ntini, of loud chants, songs and general chatter, none of which anyone really understood.
Perhaps the prospect of taking home two trophies has spurred Ntini on. No doubt it has his captain, Graeme Smith. "The feeling in the team is very good right now. We've had a successful tour where we've played good cricket barring two matches. If someone had said to me before coming over that we would go back with two trophies, I would've said it's a lot of hard work but we've done that and are confident for tomorrow."
The assertion is difficult to disprove. In the ODIs at least, they have done it without a contribution from Jacques Kallis. The one spinner they have played - Johan Botha - is the one they shouldn't have: Botha's first wickets of the series in Multan were lower-order, death-over heaves and who knows what Paul Harris might have done.
"We've come a long way in learning how to play cricket on the subcontinent," said Smith. "Our batting unit has performed well on slow, turning wickets. Our bowlers' plans have been better than in the past. We've become a lot more battle-hardened as a team certainly in these conditions."
The wicket, Smith was not shy in pointing out, looks under-prepared. Spin and seam both will benefit. South Africa countered Pakistan's spin by using Shaun Pollock as a pinch-hitter in Multan and it might be the way again tomorrow.
"The wicket is a little under-prepared and it's going to spin," said Smith. "The seamers might also play a role. We're well-prepared and we have certain plans. We'll discuss the pinch-hitter role and see what selection they play as well."
The feel-good factor, this talk of pitches, could go to pot tomorrow of course. If Shoaib plays, teams and pitches matter little. You wouldn't guess it but Shoaib hasn't played an ODI since September 2006. A 13-match ban finally out of the way, he will start tomorrow.
About time too, for as committed as Pakistan's bowling has been through the series, it has lacked a zip, a proper threat, an element of unknown. With Umar Gul and Mohammad Asif both likely to be rested, Smith cheekily - but correctly - said that pressure would be on Shoaib, not South Africa. "He's the one making a comeback. We've prepared for him because we knew he would be available. He's short on cricket and whether they risk him in such an important game will be the key."
Shoaib Malik knows it is a risk worth taking, as he knows this is as good a chance as ever to win a first-ever ODI series against South Africa. "It's a great opportunity to win a series against them for the first time. We will use Shoaib as our main bowler in the hope of bringing the best out of him," said Malik.
"If fit, he is an asset. But we will need a team effort to win the last match and if we win we will go on the tour of India with more confidence."
Naturally, half the mind is on India already. No opener or opening pair has announced itself and Pakistan will fiddle again. Neither Shahid Afridi or Yasir Hameed, providers of the best start thus far (42) are expected to open: a truly Pakistani solution to a truly Pakistani problem. Kamran Akmal comes back up the order and Imran Nazir is likely to play again, Malik admitting they were experimenting with options before India.
The good news is that Younis Khan has a score behind him and Mohammad Yousuf is in good form. If they can stop running each other out, then allied to the form of Malik himself, Pakistan's middle order is healthy. An innings from Misbah-ul-Haq would top it off nicely, though not as much as a fearsome Shoaib spell and a Pakistan victory.
Pakistan (probable): 1 Kamran Akmal (wk), 2 Imran Nazir, 3 Younis Khan, 4 Mohammad Yousuf, 5 Shoaib Malik (capt), 6 Misbah-ul-Haq, 7 Shahid Afridi, 8 Abdur Rehman, 9 Sohail Tanvir, 10 Shoaib Akhtar, 11 Rao Iftikhar Anjum.
South Africa (probable): 1 Graeme Smith (capt), 2 Herschelle Gibbs, 3 Jacques Kallis, 4 AB de Villiers, 5 JP Duminy, 6 Mark Boucher (wk), 7 Shaun Pollock, 8 Albie Morkel, 9 Andre Nel, 10 Johan Botha, 11 Makhaya Ntini.
Plays of the Day from second ODI between South Africa and Pakistan, in Port Elizabeth
Plays of the Day from the third ODI between India and West Indies, in Kanpur