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Pakistan can surprise South Africa in T20 skirmish

February 28, 2013

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In the last encounter between the two teams, Umar Gul was an unlikely hero with the bat as Pakistan beat South Africa at the 2012 World T20. -Photo by Reuters

Match: South Africa v Pakistan, 1st T20 (2 match series)

Venue: Kingsmead, Durban, South Africa

Date & Time: 1st March, 2013, 21:00 PST / 16:00 GMT (Day/Night)

Overall Rivalry: Dead Even; South Africa 3 wins, Pakistan 3 wins

Weather Report: Partly cloudy with chances of rain and a low of 18C. Strong winds of 10 to 20 km/h are expected.

Ground Report: Kingsmead is set in the scenic backdrop of an ecologically rich ocean that attracts a large number of sport fishing enthusiasts while the shores of its white sand beaches are a surfer’s paradise. However, with typical pace and bounce, the Pakistani batsmen should be more focused on riding the South African fast bowling wave.

The pitch also assists the batsmen, though, and the ball will come on to the bat nicely. There will be runs on offer but the South Africans handed the Kiwis an 86-all out drubbing in Durban earlier this summer. This ground also hosted the tied game between India and Pakistan in the 2007 ICC World T20 competition.

Game On: After Pakistan's demoralising loss in the Tests, the game returns to a format Pakistan seem most comfortable in. The shortest version of the game will give Pakistan the element to surprise South Africa and change the odds in their favour.

With the return of some old heads and some new faces, the Pakistani team has a good balance of youth and experience. Right-arm fast bowler Asad Ali and left-arm orthodox Zulfiqar Babar have been on the fringes of their debut while Umar Amin has been waiting in line. With only a two-match series, all of them may return from their second consecutive tour without having played a single game.

Seasoned campaigners in Shahid Afridi, Shoaib Malik and Kamran Akmal also return to the fold. While Malik and Kamran have shown form in the domestic circuit, Afridi has been picked on sheer reputation and past glories. Chief selector Iqbal Qasim has given the super star a last chance to prove his mettle. In Pakistan, though, words and chances come cheap. Senior cricketers and Pakistani politicians always manage to stage multiple comebacks, often as captains or heads of state.

Apart from personal performance and tactical skills during play, how T20 captain Mohammad Hafeez manages these senior players will be determe his longevity of his tenure. In the power circus of Pakistani cricket, nothing is inconceivable and surely nobody can be taken for granted.

Following England’s strategy, the Proteas now have three different captains for each format. Faf du Plessis has been handed the reins of the T20 team after showing potential during the series against New Zealand. AB de Villiers relinquishing the role of skipper came as a surprise to many but AB himself has shown reservation towards T20 cricket. “It’s difficult to find our way. We’re going to play a couple in this series, then three, four months down the line we’ll play another one, maybe two. It was difficult for me, especially when I was captain,” he said in an interview on the eve of the first T20 against Pakistan. According to some reports, he may open the innings in the match.

Cricket South Africa carefully manages workload of its greatest assets and prioritises longer forms of the game. Take big names like Graeme Smith, Hashim Amla, Jacques Kallis, Vernon Philander and Dale Steyn out of the equation along with the injured Morne Morkel and the mighty Proteas don’t seem that invincible anymore.

However, even a relatively inexperienced South African side is a good one, as they showed their effectiveness by recently triumphing over the Kiwis. In fact, they are placed as favourites this weekend, to win in home conditions that will assist their style of play.

Saeed Ajmal, Umar Gul and Shahid Afridi are the top three wicket-takers in all T20 internationals with Ajmal currently ranked as the number one bowler and Mohammad Hafeez as the number two all-rounder in the world. In stark contrast the highest ranked South African bowler in the current squad is Robin Peterson placed 30th while their number one batsmen Henry Davids has played only three international matches.

In a man-to-man combat, Pakistan should come up trumps but these numbers can easily be dampened by form and momentum in a tough setting.

South Africa is positioned down at number five in the T20 rankings, only one point ahead of Pakistan. If Pakistan can muster up a series win, they will jump up to third position and South Africa will drop to six.

Game Changer: Only five South African players from the Test series will feature in the T20 line up. The new South African faces may not have that psychological edge from the Test wins and it might provide Pakistan it's best chance to turn the tables on the Proteas.

Pre-Game Talk: “I know I can do well. I am feeling good about my cricket and am ready to bat at any position for Pakistan against South Africa.”  Shoaib Malik is upbeat. He batted at number 7 just ahead of Umar Gul in Pakistan’s last T20 defeat against India.

“We are also trying to broaden the base in introducing new talent to the national team, and the T20 squad is their arrival point. But people should be aware that players who are chosen have performed outstandingly at domestic level first.” T20 coach Russell Domingo gives an insight into South African team building strategy.

Last XI Fielded South Africans: Henry Davids, Faf du Plessis (Capt), Quinton de Kock (wk), Justin Ontong, David Miller, Farhaan Behardien, Rory Kleinveldt, Robin Peterson, Ryan McLaren, Aaron Phangiso, Morne Morkel

Last XI Fielded Pakistanis: Nasir Jamshed, Ahmed Shehzad, Umar Akmal, Mohammad Hafeez (capt), Shahid Afridi, Kamran Akmal (wk), Shoaib Malik, Umar Gul, Sohail Tanvir, Saeed Ajmal, Mohammad Irfan.

Possible Changes:

South Africa: Kyle Abbott took 9 wickets on his Test debut and should replace Morne Morkel while Ab de Villiers will take his place behind the stumps instead of Quinton de Kock.

Pakistan: Junaid Khan is expected to come in place of Sohail Tanvir if he recovers from a thigh injury, otherwise Wahab Riaz may get his chance after impressing on the domestic circuit.

Final Words: A two-match series, whether it's T20s, ODIs or Tests, does injustice to the fans and is a farce for the sport. Scheduling limitations are often used as an excuse but in a two-month long tour, 40 extra overs should surely have fit in. A series draw could leave many stakeholders craving for more.