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May 13, 2010
Friday, May 14, St Lucia
Start time 1130 (1530 GMT)
The Big Picture
Much about the way these two teams have arrived at this juncture suggests that we could have on our hands a repeat of last year's tense, compelling semi-final between South Africa and Pakistan.
Even more than last year, Pakistan's progress this time has been deeply unimpressive. They have only won two games from five and are still not sure of their best XI. Australia, like South Africa last year, have uncomplicatedly and with little fuss pushed aside teams unfortunate enough to get in their way: blast them at the top of each innings. Chaos against order, art taking on science and all that? They're even playing in St Lucia, which like Trent Bridge last year, should work in Pakistan's favour.
In reality nothing stands further from the truth. This is, after all, Australia and Australia is Australia precisely because it is not South Africa: in that alone waits a book on why two cultures so similar are so different. South Africa die on such days, wracked by demons of rigidity. Australia live for such days, the pressure of semi-finals and finals sharpening their focus even more. On these occasions they are at their most Australian.
They also seem to have finally worked out the format, or at least applied their own interpretation to it. Very fast bowlers, good solid ones, appear to be the key in a format which is often credited - mistakenly - to have saved spin. Their openers are the most brutal and their middle order most adept at recovery. Even negatives are really a positive: Michael Clarke has only 48 runs in the tournament at a strike rate of 70, yet it is difficult to argue against Malcolm Conn's assessment of him as this format's Mike Brearley currently.
Further, they have spanked Pakistan all shades of black and blue for the last ten internationals running between the two, including the group game earlier, also incidentally, at St Lucia. And historically, they are also the team least bewildered by Pakistan's mood swings: if Pakistan are awful, they are duly thrashed. If Pakistan are brilliant, they are duly bested.
All of it bodes less well than it did last year for Shahid Afridi's men. They have at least improved in their last two games and their smartness, as ever, has been in performing when it matters most. In taking the losses to England and New Zealand to the very death, they secured a minor victory in a tournament where even good sides have often been very bad.
Hope springs mostly from their bowling and spin in particular. If something remarkable is to happen, Saeed Ajmal can easily be imagined at the centre of it and Abdur Rehman not far away. And it may not be the worst time for Afridi to slip back into wicket-taking mode.
Could it also be just the right kind of time to thrust Hammad Azam into international cricket? Everyone else in the squad has been tried and Mohammad Hafeez, the most surprising name among the nine to feature in all five matches, must be vulnerable.
Form guide (Most recent first)
Watch out for
The three pace amigos of Australia, Dirk Nannes, Shaun Tait and Mitchell Johnson, have taken 29 wickets between them in this tournament. The pace, angles and intent they bring are difficult to compete against and if they fire as they have been doing, there will be little stopping Australia.
Runs are what Pakistan need and more likely than not, they will come from the Akmal brothers. One innings apart, Kamran hasn't kicked on from several starts, though he has at least provided some early momentum. Umar, meanwhile, has mostly looked good, though only against South Africa has he properly kicked on. If he clicks, Pakistan have a chance.
Why would Australia fix it when it clearly isn't broke?
Australia (probable) 1 Shane Watson 2 David Warner 3 Brad Haddin (wk) 4 Michael Clarke (capt) 5 David Hussey 6 Cameron White 7 Michael Hussey 8 Steve Smith 9 Mitchell Johnson 10 Dirk Nannes 11 Shaun Tait
Pakistan, in contrast, need to answer a number of questions. How long to persist with Misbah-ul-Haq, scorer of 68 runs and holder of a sub-100 strike rate? Is there a suitable replacement? If Mohammad Hafeez hasn't sparked for five games, will he do so now? It is St Lucia, but just one fast bowler, in a Pakistan side?
Pakistan (probable) 1 Salman Butt 2 Kamran Akmal (wk) 3 Khalid Latif 4 Hammad Azam/Mohammad Hafeez 5 Umar Akmal 6 Misbah-ul-Haq 7 Shahid Afridi 8 Abdul Razzaq 9 Abdur Rehman 10 Mohammad Aamer 11 Saeed Ajmal
Pitch and conditions Pakistan would prefer to play Australia at St Lucia rather than Barbados, but given how they were hit in the group game earlier at the same venue, they face the deep blue sea rather than the devil. The surface is slower, enough to help Pakistan's spinners, but not enough to neuter Australia's pace.
"We are playing well overall but we are missing opportunities by dropping catches. In any format, it is the fielding that wins you the matches."
Shahid Afridi singles out fielding as Pakistan's major worry.
"Everyone has performed well in at least one of the games. Our fielding has been outstanding and is a huge part of Australian cricket in any form of the game, that's probably the most satisfying for me."
Michael Clarke has no such worries.
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Stats highlights from the fourth ODI between India and West Indies in Dharamsala