If disappointment and frustration could be ring-fenced into a cricket ground, the best way to do it would be airdropping Pakistan and South Africa's 2019 World Cup in Lord's Cricket ground tomorrow. Two sides that were widely considered genuine semi-final contenders, they have seen their hopes dashed game after game, and will face off tomorrow, Even 'must-win' sounds a bit off at this stage.
For South Africa, the downturn began during the IPL, when Dale Steyn was ruled out of after playing just two games, that too after a long tryst with injuries. He was then ruled out of the World Cup without being able to take the field, despite South Africa attempting to reassure the world, and themselves perhaps, that Steyn would only miss the first few games.
Anrich Nortje was ruled out of the tournament in May, and following a breakthrough summer, Duanne Olivier opted to take up a Kolpak deal. That meant despite Kagiso Rabada and Lungi Ngidi's presence, the team's core strength, fast bowling, had to be propped up by allrounders Chris Morris and Andile Phehlukwayo, who do not possess the menace of the men who aren't here.
As a consequence, the World Cup has seen a side not quite sure of the best combination in terms of the number of batsmen and bowlers, or what to do with second spinner Tabraiz Shamsi, should the pitch deem his inclusion propitious. In fact, South Africa aren't even sure of their opening combination, with Hashim Amla's poor form seeing Aiden Markram promoted, and it's a sign of the scrambled thinking that they left out David Miller in the opening game, for reasons that have never quite matched common cricketing sense.
The best thing for South Africa at this stage is that Pakistan aren't in the finish-teams-off kind of mood. Relying on a miracle has evoked tedious, specious comparisons to the 1992 World Cup, and much of the optimism from the win over England has fizzled out following an error-strewn performance against Australia and a demoralising defeat to India. Pakistan, too, are unsure about their best XI, or the combination that best suits their strengths. Persisting with Shoaib Malik, never at his most comfortable in England over the course of a long career, has seen the crucial No. 6 spot go to a man bereft of confidence. At the same time, Pakistan haven't been quite sure how to get the fifth set of ten overs in, tying themselves in such intricate knots they even left out Shadab Khan for the game against Australia, Pakistan's equivalent of the Miller omission.
Pakistan now need to win all four remaining games to stand a realistic chance of reaching the semi-finals. How realistic is that, really? They have won just four of their last 24 ODIs, after all. In South Africa, must contend with Rabada and Ngidi leading an attack against a batting line-up that, top three aside, doesn't nearly convince. Apart from Mohammad Amir, the bowlers aren't quite hitting their lengths either, and even he hasn't been able to get Pakistan an early breakthrough in the two previous games, where the opening batsmen ran up partnerships of 146 and 136. But South Africa haven't been much better, and whoever wins on Sunday will be bucking the trend.
(Last five completed matches, most recent first)
South Africa LWLLL
In the spotlight
Famously billed by AB de Villiers in 2015 as "the player who would play the innings that won us the World Cup final", Quinton de Kock has had a lot to live up to; unfortunately, his World Cup form hasn't matched his usual lofty numbers. In 14 innings across two tournaments, he averages 28 (career average 45.21), with only three fifties and 11 scores under 30. The fluctuating fortunes of Markram and Amla's waning form has meant his contributions are ever more desperately needed, but two half-centuries have been accompanied by a string of low scores this time around. He is perhaps likelier to have a longer ODI career than the rest of the top six, but it is in tournaments like these that his quality must shine through if he is to be spoken of in the same breath as the big boys of the game.
Yes, Mohammad Amir is in excellent form, but the fact that it is an exclamation rather than a casual utterance reveals how expectations have dipped over the past few years. He's one of the leading wicket-takers in the World Cup so far, but he still struggles to provide breakthroughs at the top of the innings. The first game aside, he hasn't struck in the first Powerplay once, but he does have an economy rate of 4.72 for his 13 wickets. That West Indies game, where batsmen played shots without attempting to preserve wickets, was an aberration in a trend that had seen him go wicketless in the first Powerplay in 264 balls bowled since January 2018. For all his other skills, Amir was most valuable to Pakistan because he was lethal with the new ball. That's the Amir Sarfaraz Ahmed needs back, never more than at Lord's tomorrow.
The performance against New Zealand was much improved, even if it didn't produce the result South Africa so desperately needed. They are likely to stick with the same XI.
South Africa (possible): 1 Quinton de Kock (wk), 2 Hashim Amla, 3 Faf du Plessis (capt), 4 Rassie van der Dussen, 5 Aiden Markram, 6 David Miller, 7 Chris Morris, 8 Andile Phehlukwayo, 9 Kagiso Rabada, 10 Imran Tahir, 11 Lungi Ngidi
After scores of 8, 0 and 0, Malik might have played his last game in a Pakistan shirt. Haris Sohail should take his place. Hasan Ali's lacklustre performances might push him to the bench, with Mohammad Hasnain poised to slot in.
Pakistan (possible): 1 Imam-ul-Haq, 2 Fakhar Zaman, 3 Babar Azam, 4 Mohammad Hafeez, 5 Sarfaraz Ahmed (capt & wk), 6 Haris Sohail, 7 Shadab Khan, 8 Imad Wasim, 9 Mohammad Amir, 10 Wahab Riaz, 11 Shaheen Afridi
The pitch the game will be played on has lost much of its green in the past 24 hours, and is likely to shed more by match time on Sunday. It's expected to be a flat wicket, good for batting. These days, that would mean bowl first, but given Pakistan's misadventure with the toss against India last Sunday, this may just be a better toss to lose for them.
Pakistan will have a better chance of turning South Africa over if they can nab de Kock early, and the best way to do that could be to attack him with left-arm pace. Since the 2017 Champions Trophy, de Kock has averaged almost half (35.4) against left-arm pace as he has against right-arm pace (62.1), being dismissed five times in 13 innings by left-arm quicks. Pakistan could consider giving Wahab Riaz the new ball. Or they could let Shaheen Shah Afridi take the new ball alongside Mohammad Amir. Afridi is also the only member of the current attack to have dismissed de Kock in this format - during Pakistan's tour of South Africa earlier this year - so he could be a good option first up for Pakistan.
South Africa should open the bowling with Imran Tahir. Fakhar Zaman enjoys pace on the ball, and his discomfort against high-quality spin was evident in the middle overs against India. Ditto for Babar Azam, who has timed the ball beautifully in the early stages of his innings, and this is where Tahir's variations of pace could fiddle with his technique and control.
Stats and trivia
History favours South Africa, who have won three of four World Cup encounters with Pakistan. Pakistan did, however, win the most recent one, in Auckland in 2015.
This will be the first time Pakistan and South Africa play each other at Lord's. Of their three previous encounters in England, South Africa have won two, while Pakistan triumphed most recently at the Champions Trophy in 2017.