With 19 runs needed off 55 balls and six wickets in hand, the match seemed safe, even by Pakistan's standards. But as if allergic to cricket without high-drama, Pakistan conspired a dispiriting collapse as the pitch deteriorated in Sharjah, while Imran Tahir, playing his first ODI in two-and-a-half years, led South Africa to a one-run win.
Lonwabo Tsotsobe began the slide when he dismissed the well-set Umar Amin at the end of the 41st over, and Tahir struck immediately after, taking three wickets in his next 11 balls. Pakistan's last batting pair - Saeed Ajmal and Mohammad Irfan - needed to score seven to win, together, and were doing it in leg byes and inside edges, with plenty of close calls in between. With three to get for victory, Ajmal took a single, exposing the clueless Irfan to Morne Morkel, and the bowler needed only two balls to secure the win. He hit the top of off stump, beating Irfan's lazy prod, sparking wild celebrations on the field, as a stunned crowd looked on in disbelief.
For a team that veers so wildly between genius and calamity, Pakistan played prudently and professionally for 90 overs of the series-opener, in Sharjah. Irfan had set the tone for the bowlers with a hostile, yet disciplined spell after Pakistan were asked to bowl, while Sohail Tanvir provided tight, intelligent support. The spinners ruthlessly exploited South Africa's frailty against spin, on a turning track, and remained collected in the face of Wayne Parnell's late surge.
The chase was measured, sometimes dour - even boring. Needing less than four an over, Pakistan travelled at a steady pace; taking few risks, biding their time. The only surprise was Misbah-ul-Haq throwing away his wicket to a wide half-volley on 31. Reasoning that he ought to have remained there, Misbah will probably blame himself for what happened late in the match. No doubt many others will as well.
If this was a tough defeat for Pakistan to swallow, it was almost as hard for the spectators to get their head around. Tahir was not getting any more turn than Ajmal had managed earlier in the day, it was just that balls had now begun keeping low - but not unpredictably so. Umar Akmal got himself into a tangle playing the first ball of the 42nd over, shaping to paddle-sweep, then deciding against it, then playing all around a slow straight one. And all of a sudden, panic erupted.
Surely not, you thought, but there was Tanvir edging a wide Tsotsobe ball to the keeper, leaving Pakistan seven down, ten runs still to get. Shahid Afridi had whacked a four off a long-hop in Tahir's previous over, and then when you felt even he could not be as irresponsible as to throw his wicket away, he got himself caught on the midwicket boundary, trying to hit another long hop for six.
Wahab Riaz was lbw to a nicely-delivered googly from Tahir later in the over, which brought the final pair together, and from then on, Pakistan's fate was held hostage by blind fortune. Luck smiled on them through a close lbw review - the result of another Tahir googly - and a series of edges and plays and misses, but it deserted Pakistan when they had two to get and 22 balls left.
Parnell's 56, much of it scored in the company of Lonwabo Tsotsobe, who himself contributed 15 to their ninth-wicket stand of 52, became a crucial contribution in the end - which it had not seemed to be for so much of the match. South Africa were 86 for 6 when Parnell arrived, and while he was technically out of his depth to the spinners, the seeds of defiance were sown in Parnell during a 39-run stand with David Miller.
When Tsotsobe arrived, with the score on 129 for 8, Parnell found a partner that found a way to survive as he did - through a series of inside and outside edges that were almost willed into falling safely. There were 15 overs remaining in the innings when they joined forces, and they played the match situation well, defending everything that was not susceptible to their limited range of attacking strokes. Occasionally they grew bold - Parnell reverse-swatted Saeed Ajmal over point for four and Tsotsobe launched him high over cow corner - but the majority of their efforts were directed towards gleaning value from the remaining overs. By finding the batting wits that had escaped a panicked top-order, the pair lifted South Africa to a total that they could conceivably defend.
Earlier, Ajmal's arrival at the bowling crease in the 11th over prompted familiar timidity in an already cautious batting effort. South Africa had groped their way around Sri Lanka two months before, and despite assurances that lessons from that series had been internalised, they lost seven wickets to Ajmal and Afridi in this match, as the each of the top five fell before eclipsing 20.
Graeme Smith had not been on that trip to Sri Lanka, but he overreached in Ajmal's second over, desperate to get to the pitch of the ball after having his outside edge beaten, and when one spun past his blade, Umar Akmal completed a simple stumping. Faf du Plessis couldn't decide whether to play forward or back and was lbw in Ajmal's next over, while AB de Villiers fell to a doosra, dancing down the pitch to offer a leading edge that Ajmal took on the second grab. At the end of his first six over spell, Ajmal had conceded nine runs, and bowled two maidens - his three scalps leaving South Africa at 68 for 5 after 21 overs.
Afridi bowled flatter and with less venom, but was soon extending South Africa's slide, albeit at a less dramatic rate.
Nasir Jamshed was out early in Pakistan's response, but that dismissal prompted so steady a response from the rest of the top order, that five maidens were bowled in the first ten overs of the innings. Ahmed Shehzad's 92-ball 58 contained only five fours - many of them behind square on the off side - and the run rate barely rose above four, such was the calm that pervaded the innings.
Sadly for Pakistan, but in a strangely familiar fashion, they swung from one extreme to the other in a matter of minutes, and made a mockery of themselves, in the face of some spirited but manageable bowling.