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March 19, 2013
Durban could be forgiven for feeling anxious. It has not seen any international cricket this year and has only had a day's worth of it this summer. Moreover, it has not yet hosted Pakistan after the first Twenty20 was washed out and the subcontinental fan base has missed out on seeing a team they will be keen to cheer for.
If the weather forecast is to be believed, that will change on Thursday. Not a drop of rain is predicted as the coastal city finally decides to show off its sunnier side and temperatures are expected to soar. The late season in Durban is characterised by days like these where the air can be suffocatingly pregnant with humidity.
That also means swing and a series which has not been kind to opening batsmen will get no easier for them. Even in Bloemfontein, where South Africa's first pair put on 72 runs and Pakistan's 42, facing the quicks was tough for both sides as the bat was regularly beaten. Since then, South Africa have managed first-wicket stands of 26 and 4 and Pakistan 29 and 15 as swing and seam movement have dominated the early exchanges.
Hashim Amla, the only Durban-based player in the XI - although that could change if either David Miller or Kyle Abbott plays - does not expect Kingsmead to be too different. "We are becoming used to a difficult partnership upfront because of the two new white balls," he said of himself and Graeme Smith.
The pair struggled against Umar Gul, Mohammad Irfan and Junaid Khan with the latter two causing the problems at the Wanderers. "They bowled really good lengths and the wicket itself was a bit tacky so the ball didn't come on to the bat," Amla said. "We knew that the first 10 would be difficult so we just kept reassuring ourselves to hang in, then maybe release will come."
The breathing room came through a massive, 238-run stand between Amla and AB de Villiers. The pair concentrated on more than just survival, according to Amla. "We rotate the strike well. I always enjoy batting with AB because when he comes in you know the game is going to go forward," he said. "We complement each other and we keep each other motivated."
Amla will look to continue that way in Durban, despite the difficulties. The surface will not offer Irfan, if he is fit to play, much bounce but he may be able to get the ball to skid on awkwardly. Whoever plays of Junaid, Gul, Wahab Riaz and Sohail Tanvir can be guaranteed movement and Amla hopes South Africa will have a way of counterattacking with bat in hand as much as Dale Steyn and Lonwabo Tsotsobe can do with ball.
"As much as the Pakistan bowlers are good, they are also inexperienced," Amla said. "Irfan and Wahab haven't played many games even though they are definitely all quality. But if we get partnerships going again, we can exploit that inexperience."
Pakistan's pace pack will bank on exactly the opposite. Despite their lack of experience, they will hope to take advantage of conditions that should suit them. Kingsmead is traditionally a low-scoring ground with the average runs per over only 4.66. Totals above 250 are not all that common and it could even have something in it for the spinners.
"I am interested to see what we get down there," Amla said. "It's been a long time since I've played there and I'm not sure if it is going to swing as much. If its turns, their bowlers come into play even more." The international schedule means Amla rarely plays for his franchise the Dolphins so he has not featured at his home ground since last season.
He has only played three ODIs there overall and has two fifties to his name but no hundreds in Durban. Having notched his first century of 2013 at the Wanderers, the world's top-ranked ODI batsman is hungry for more. "I am always in the mood for a big one," Amla joked. "With it being difficult upfront, I cement in my head, the idea of how I will play. I always try to understand in which context I am batting."
If the records books are correct and Pakistan's bowlers are up for it, the context on Thursday will be a tough one again.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondentFeeds: Firdose Moonda
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