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November 30, 2013
The more things change, the more they stay the same, it is said. The month-long limited-overs series contests between South Africa and Pakistan has given meaning to that hypothesis.
Rewind to October 30, the day this all began with an ODI in Sharjah. South Africa were bowled out for 183, Saeed Ajmal took four wickets as their top and middle order collapsed. Pakistan responded with a handful of contributions from the line-up with Ahmed Shehzad and Misbah-ul-Haq the highest scorers. South Africa's seamers did the bulk of the damage and, astoundingly, they defended the total by one run.
Fast-forward through Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Johannesburg, Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and stop at Centurion. Pakistan were bowled out for 179 with South Africa's quicks ripping through them. Misbah was the major contributor. South Africa reached the target but it was hard work against Pakistan's tweakers. They finished on 181 for 6.
The similarities between the scores, the circumstances and the key protagonists are so eerily obvious that these matches bracket the cold facts both teams must take out of this series. They are, as Hashim Amla suggested before today's clash, "evenly matched" because their attacks are incisive, varied and shrewd. But their line-ups, Misbah-ul-Haq confirmed, are "like each other" in that they similarly unsure, unable to build consistently-threatening partnerships and vulnerable against an aspect of the other's bowling.
Pakistan's weakness is at the top, where they have battled to find an opening combination that works and someone in the top four who can take responsibility. They are guilty of being loose outside the off stump, being undone by the short ball and throwing wickets away with rash shots once they have built a small foundation.
"Whoever gets starts, especially the top four, they need to carry on. One batsman needs to bat through the 50 overs," Misbah stressed. "We only did it once when Ahmed managed it for us in Port Elizabeth. There is still a lot of work needed from the top order to contribute more. We need some consistency from everyone. If you play only one innings out of five, that won't help the team."
Nasir Jamshed and Mohammad Hafeez are obvious concerns but even Ahmed Shehzad has to learn consistency. Sohaib Maqsood seems to have the right temperament and with experience could become a go-to man.
Misbah himself continues to perform reliably and indicated that even though he may not visit South Africa again, with the next tour scheduled for 2018, he still has a good few years in international cricket. "At the moment it looks like I won't play in South Africa anymore... But the hunger is still there and I still want to play and enjoy this game."
Deeper in the line-up, things look better for Pakistan, where they have found allrounders in Bilawal Bhatti and Anwar Ali. Misbah praised their comings of age and hoped they could continue to finish innings strongly. "One good thing is that a lot of contributions are coming from the lower middle order. Our bowlers are now scoring runs," he said.
South Africa have the opposite problem. They usually enjoy comfortable starts and now have options in openers with Quinton de Kock in fine form, but lose their way later on, when the middle order is exposed to spin. The likes of JP Duminy and David Miller still have difficulty negotiating the tweakers and that becomes more evident when the pressure is on.
"Their batting is like us, it is also a concern for them," Misbah said. "They really need to settle those problems. If so many batsmen are not making contributions and don't have confidence, that could be a problem for the team.
Chasing remains South Africa's biggest hurdle because it combines their soft underbelly with their reactions to anxiety. Although they won in Centurion, the chase was not without nerves, and AB de Villiers admitted he remains edgy about his team's ability to cross the line when batting second.
"We still didn't chase as well as we wanted to and didn't show a lot of care for our partnerships, but we still got through it," de Villiers said. "I was worried because we are losing wickets. The care factor is something that is lacking. It's just a matter of how we absorb the pressure and how we can turn it around. It's certainly an area we've been working on for a long time but every now and then we just fall out."
South Africa will likely be faced with bigger totals than they have done in the home and away series against Pakistan in their next assignment, against India. De Villiers said they "can't be more prepared" for that challenge, especially because they have been playing against some of the world's best spinners for the last month.
But they still need to be wary of Misbah's words about accountability, as will his own team, which plays Sri Lanka in the UAE. "It's about professionalism," Misbah said. "If I am playing as a batman and score 100 in one game, the next day if the team needs me, I should score 100 again. I shouldn't say I have already done it and someone else has to next time. This is what batsmen are there for. We have to accept that responsibility."
The more things change, the more stay the same, so it's hardly a surprise it took the oldest man across both camps to utter those wise words.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondentFeeds: Firdose Moonda
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