Rain threatens to upset game plans
It hasn't rained in Malaysia for the majority of the Under-19 World Cup but the luck has turned as we approach the business end of the tournament. There were short but sharp showers during the semi-final between India and New Zealand and it rained heavily throughout the afternoon on the eve of the second semi-final between Pakistan and South Africa.
The coaches of Pakistan and South Africa, Mansoor Rana and Ray Jennings, said the rain, if it came in the evening, would favour the side batting under the lights. Although the batsmen will have to cope with sighting a muddy ball and grapple with a slower outfield, it's the bowling side that would suffer more with a slippery ball, especially their spinners. Rana felt India would have had a tougher chase against New Zealand had it not rained, while Jennings cited England's comfortable chase against Sri Lanka because rain interrupted play.
"You need a bit of luck when the weather's going wrong especially with the timing of the rain interruption," Jennings told Cricinfo. "Sometimes it's in your favour and sometimes it is not. It can play havoc on preparations and the chances of the best side coming through. There's a definite advantage batting second if it does happen to rain"
Rana said Pakistan had game plans for any eventuality but given the inexperience of the players in high-pressure situations, it will be hard to adjust quickly should the weather intervene in a big way.
Head-to-head it's hard to choose between the two sides. South Africa have qualified from the toughest group, which included India and West Indies, and they crushed Bangladesh in the quarter-final. Their strength lies in their pace attack, led by captain Wayne Parnell, which is backed up by an agile fielding outfit. Their strategy has been to create pressure in their middle overs through the tight lines bowled by their medium-pacers, with wicketkeeper Bradley Barnes standing up to the stumps.
A chink could be their batting against quality spinners but Jennings brushed it off. "I think a lot of people are underestimating our batting," Jennings said. "We have a mix of left and right-handers in our middle order. In these conditions the opposition will be using three or four spinners and our middle-order plays spin well. Against India we lost wickets to the seam bowler [Pradeep Sangwan] up front, who our guys obviously lost focus against. Beware of our middle-order players, they can play spin."
Pakistan have an assortment of spinners to attack South Africa with. Imad Wasim, the captain, bowls left-arm orthodox, while their opening batsmen Ahmed Shehzad and Umar Akmal bowl legbreaks and offspin respectively. However, it is their pace attack that has caused the most damage in the tournament so far and the South African batsmen better be wary of Adil Raza, who struck twice in his first over in the quarter-final against Australia.
The weakness for the defending champions has been their batting. Pakistan played their group matches in Johor where the wickets were damp and did not make 200 even once. Their first hit on a good batting track was against Australia and they chased 129 comfortably after a minor top-order wobble. Akmal hasn't fired at as opener so far in the tournament - his highest score is 17 - but Rana wasn't overly concerned.
"Our openers scored a lot of runs in Sri Lanka," he said. "My concern was the middle order and that was the reason we batted first against Zimbabwe on a difficult pitch [in Johor]. We had already qualified for the quarters and wanted to test the batsmen. Ali Asad scored runs."
The tournament has boiled down to a fitting finish. Pakistan are unbeaten in the tournament so far while South Africa have lost only to India, who have already qualified for the final. The teams are highly skilled and a tense contest awaits. All that is needed is for the rain to stay away.
George Binoy is a staff writer at Cricinfo