Sharjah, March 28: One blistering over and it all made the difference. It doesn't happen so often. But on Tuesday it did. South Africa were cruising when Shoaib Akhtar produced a telling burst to swing the match in his team's favour from nowhere, leaving the startled South Africans biting their nails in disbelief.
Three wickets in one over simply destroyed an under-strength South Africa, who thereafter caved in under the intense pressure applied by Pakistan. With India out of the way, the match was reduced to a dress rehearsal for Friday's final. The only interest left was to see whether Pakistan would be able to snap their 14-match losing streak against South Africa.
They did and that too in style, unfolding their amazing fighting qualities when things were loaded heavily against them. South Africa, chasing 169 for victory, were 74 for one when Shoaib, bowling with awesome speed and accuracy, began his sensational over - his fourth and the team's 17th.
On his second ball he forced an edge from Mark Boucher, then clean bowled Dale Benkenstein and Lance Klusener with his fourth and sixth deliveries to bring the match alive.
The quick blows reduced South Africa to 74 for four, but Shoaib, who bowled the fastest delivery of the day - 156km per hour - aggravated his groin injury in the very next over. Still, there was no respite for the South Africans, who just failed to figure out what was happening out there in the middle. Abdur Razzaq completed his over and he was too rewarded with the wicket of Peiter Strydom.
With Pakistan on fire, the proceedings were reduced to a one-sided affair.
Pakistan fully exploited the utter confusion in the South African camp to return home with a grin of pride lighting up their faces. They couldn't have asked for a better dose of success before the final.
South Africa, who rested five of their regulars including skipper Hansie Cronje, were further handicapped by injury to Gary Kirsten (back spasm) who had to retire hurt after scoring eight runs. Only Herschelle Gibbs stood firm amid the ruins, but his unbeaten innings of 59 off 79 balls with nine fours only helped South Africa cross the 100-run mark.
Amid Shoaib's exploits, Waqar Younis' feat was almost eclipsed. The veteran pacer, playing his 186th one-day international match, joined the exclusive 300-wicket club when he removed Neil McKenzie for one. The sensational stuff produced by the fiery Pakistan bowlers, who shot out South Africa for a 101 in mere 26.5 overs, amply made up the inept showing of their batsmen earlier in the day.
Shaun Pollock, leading the side for the first, marshalled his resources effectively to fire Pakistan out for 168, only Yousuf Youhana rose to the challenge with a cultured 65 off 88 balls. Even if South Africa had scored all the runs in zero over, Pakistan would have still qualified for the final, such was the one-sided equation in their favour.
Pollock himself set the tone for pedestrian top order batting, claiming young Imran Nazir in the very first over.
Pakistan just failed to recover from the early shock and kept losing wickets in quick successions Flamboyant Shahid Afridi, though he exhibited to such instinct in this tournament, hung on for a while, scoring 26 off 45 balls, life wasn't easy for the Pakistan batsmen.
When Pakistan were reduced to 60 for four in 22 overs, a score in vicinity of 100 or 125 looked a distant dream. But Youhana and Abdur Razzaq steadied the faltering Pakistan innings while, building up a stand of 35 for the sixth wicket - the highest of the Pakistan innings - before Razzaq failed to beat a direct throw from Klusener from the deep.
As usual, South Africans were pretty alter on the field, the way slide and dive is a treat to watch. The one left-handed catch which Hayward took off his bowling to dismiss Moin Khan was simply out of the world. The bowler dived to his left on his follow through to snuffle the catch just inches above the ground.
Wasim Akram, one of the five batsmen to reach the double-digit mark, made a useful 19, but it was Youhana who held Pakistan together, opening up in the last few overs to lend respectability to the score. His 65 contained seven hits the fence.
But, in the end, it was Pakistan's compelling fightback that made all the difference and it also ended South Africa's eight-match victory run at Sharjah.