Pakistan got the basics wrong

More often than not, quality will out, no matter what form cricket takes. Just before the Twenty20 World Cup, the freshness of the concept compelled many to pull out the time-honoured maxim that a good player is a good player is a good player no matter what the format or the environment. It follows then that a good team is a good team is a good team wherever or whatever it plays. The better sides will move from one form to another without as much as a pause. The best will do it ruthlessly.
The two sides who contested the final of that tournament - Pakistan and India - are just now discovering what it means to really be a good side, a side to compete in any situation. Two sides that didn't do as well as expected, but not as poorly as has been made out - South Africa and Australia - have no such problems. Australia broke little sweat in putting aside India in their recently-concluded ODI series and South Africa have thus far dominated Pakistan ten days of international cricket out of 11, over two formats.

This was the third format both sides were playing in less than a month but only Pakistan has looked disoriented. Shoaib Malik, the captain, has pointed out too many times for comfort that his side hasn't played a certain format for some time and so rustiness is to be expected. When Pakistan lost the Test series it was partly because they hadn't played a Test since the start of the year. Today, he pointed out that Pakistan hadn't played ODIs for some time.

His counterpart Graeme Smith spoke of the need to switch their mindsets to Test cricket just the once, before the tour started. They last played a Test when Pakistan did and they last played an ODI not too long after Pakistan did; he has barely broached the topic since.

Winning cricket is made up of simple truths that work across all forms. If your top order fires, then life becomes easier. South Africa's did so in the Test series, in suitable fashion, taking time to build their innings. It did so here, in suitable fashion again. If an opener bats through, as Herschelle Gibbs nearly did with his 18th ODI hundred, then a sturdy base has been set.

If one of your middle-order contributes and you build a partnership, as AB de Villiers did with his third ODI hundred, then you give your bowlers something to bowl at. If your bowlers work in tandem, attacking at one end and restricting at the other, as Makhaya Ntini and Shaun Pollock did, then you have all but won the game. Add a little discipline: South Africa conceded only six extras and not one until the 36th over.

Flair and natural talent takes you a long way. A bit of fight, as Pakistan's lower half showed, will take you a little further. But neither will ever take you all the way if the basics of winning cricket are not already in place

If you then back all this up with sharp fielding you have, as South Africa had today, the perfect game. Stripped to this degree, cricket is a simple game and it is what South Africa have done through this tour, switching formats as smoothly as a politician might his colours because they haven't lost sight of these truths.

In contrast, Pakistan have struggled. At times they have looked confused. In Tests, they played in Twenty20 mode barring the last day of the series and their pacemen bowled not a yorker between them. Here, their top order was gone before the reply had properly begun, all in a manner that suggested that a new format - Ten10 - had emerged. Malik explained later, confusingly, that the plan was to stay at the wicket and bat through to the end. But he excused away the top-order dismissals, saying batsmen had to take chances. What then was the plan?

Their bowling attack looked light again though they didn't help themselves by giving away 27 extras. Still Malik felt that their bowlers had done well and that their fielders had also done well. No mention of the one truth that is so palpable, that for much of the match, Pakistan just played poor cricket, precisely the opposite in every aspect of their opponents.

Flair and natural talent takes you a long way. A bit of fight, as Pakistan's lower half showed, will take you a little further and both qualities ultimately put a more respectable gloss on a day they were outclassed. But neither will ever take you all the way if the basics of winning cricket are not already in place.