As one campaign unravels, another gathers full steam. It’s a familiar theme for Pakistan and South Africa across much of ICC tournament history. While South Africa have often looked among the most formidable sides in the early stages of these tournaments, Pakistan stutter and stall until they’ve left themselves with no margin for error, and then they roar into life. This fixture, timed to coincide with that point of crossroads in the World Cup group stages, gives that narrative the extra thrust for South Africa to be that little bit warier, and Pakistan slightly more optimistic.
But South Africa are looking to make history at this World Cup, while Pakistan are in danger of being consigned to it. The ferocious brilliance of South Africa has combined with clinical effectiveness, lending that side a steel and ruthlessness they have often been accused of lacking. The team might always look a batter light with Marco Jansen in at seven, but with nearly all of the top six in such glistening form, no side bar Netherlands have been able to burrow their way deeper into that line-up until explosive damage has already been done.
South Africa will still look at their bowling and conclude there’s room for improvement, unusual for a side where not a single bowler has ended up wicketless in any of their five games thus far. Though both the pace battery and the spin attack have had few problems blowing top orders out, getting rid of the lower order has proved troublesome in nearly every game. While the batters have offered enough cover for Temba Bavuma’s side not to overly concern themselves, it was arguably responsible for their only defeat, a freak loss against Netherlands when they were allowed to get to 245 for 8 after losing their seventh wicket at 140.
Compared to Pakistan, though, these are cricket’s versions of first-world problems. Pakistan have slightly greater worries than complaints that they only beat the defending champions by 229 rather than the 300 runs that they wanted. After a shaky start to the tournament that still saw them post two wins in two, Pakistan have now lost three games on the bounce, the last one a chastening eight-wicket trouncing at Afghanistan’s hands. For a side that prides itself on the lethality of its pace attack, that department has looked almost historically toothless, with each of Sri Lanka, India, Australia and Afghanistan putting them to the sword.
While the batting has, at times, fared better, the top order which formed the core of their run-scoring ballast is now a shell of its former self. Abdullah Shafique has produced some substance to go with his style, but with Fakhar Zaman injured and Babar Azam having lost that almost mechanical trait of relentless accumulation, the middle order has been exposed to a greater degree than it is prepared for. Shadab Khan’s woeful form with the ball has led to questions about his place in the side and messed with the batting order, too, and against Australia it effectively stripped them of an extra batter. Add to that the pressure of every game being a knockout, and history, rather than quality, looks increasingly like the only reason Pakistan might have further hopes of progressing.
The PCB itself appears to see the writing on the wall by issuing a bizarre statement urging fans to continue to support the team. Somewhat cynically, it indulged in a little self-preservation of its own, firmly pointing the finger at under-fire captain Babar and chief selector Inzamam-ul-Haq for selecting the team.
While ignominy possibly awaits Pakistan, South Africa eye glory. The two sides in resplendent green could not look more different from each other at present.
Pakistan LLLWW (last five completed matches, most recent first) South Africa WWLWW
In the spotlight – Babar Azam and Marco Jansen
Devoid of form – by his high standards – criticised for his captaincy, likely shunned by his own board, Pakistan’s best batter in a generation finds himself at his lowest point. Babar Azam leads a team that looks like it’s entering its death spiral. But at the moment, Pakistan are alive, and in around the same sort of territory they found themselves in when he delivered his most celebrated innings yet: that century against New Zealand in 2019. Against an attack that’s likely to trouble most of his team-mates, Pakistan’s fate is tied almost inevitably to Babar’s batting form. If he can deliver a knock of similar value as the one against New Zealand four years ago, few will be interested in looking further up his hands to see if that armband’s still on.
When everyone knows – as they do about Imam-ul-Haq – you’ve got a problem against the short ball, facing 209cm Marco Jansen does not fill you with joy. A cheat code of a cricketer, the ultimate two-in-one player has had a sparkling World Cup, taking two wickets in each of his five games while keeping the economy rate under check. His ability to swing the new ball and get extra bounce at will belie the high pace and consistency of his bowling, and Pakistan are low on confidence with the bat. If all that wasn’t enough, Jansen is among the most lethal lower-order hitters at the death, as his mullering of England will bear witness to.
Team news – Bavuma, Fakhar set to return
Fakhar Zaman has been passed fit, and if he does play, Imam-ul-Haq is likeliest to make way. Perhaps more importantly, Hasan Ali has been ruled out with fever, likely putting Mohammad Wasim Jnr in contention.
Pakistan: (likely) 1 Abdullah Shafique, 2 Imam-ul-Haq/Fakhar Zaman, 3 Babar Azam (capt), 4 Mohammad Rizwan (wk), 5 Saud Shakeel, 6 Iftikhar Ahmed, 7 Shadab Khan, 8 Usama Mir, 9 Mohammad Wasim Jnr, 10 Shaheen Shah Afridi, 11 Haris Rauf
South Africa’s main conundrum surrounded what to do about captain Temba Bavuma, with Reeza Hendricks doing a stellar job as replacement during his enforced absence. But Bavuma will come back in and lead the side, and South Africa have also opted for extra spin, with Keshav Maharaj replacing Gerald Coetzee.
South Africa: (likely) 1 Temba Bavuma (capt), 2 Quinton de Kock (wk), 3 Rassie van der Dussen, 4 Aiden Markram, 5 Heinrich Klaasen, 6 David Miller, 7 Marco Jansen, 8 Keshav Maharaj, 9 Tabraiz Shamsi, 10 Kagiso Rabada, 11 Lungi Ngidi/Lizaad Williams
Pitch and conditions
The pitch will be the same as the one used for the Bangladesh-New Zealand game a fortnight ago, which means it’ll be a bit quicker than the usual Chennai surface. There’s a slight chance of a passing shower, though a full game is likely.
Stats and trivia
Hasan Ali and Shaheen Shah Afridi are one and four wickets away respectively from becoming the 21st and 22nd Pakistan bowlers to reach 100 ODI wickets
While South Africa have a 3-2 lead against Pakistan in ODI World Cups, their last win came in 1999
Quinton de Kock is one century away from tying AB de Villers for most World Cup hundreds for South Africa (4)
“I think we have underperformed, in all three matches. We haven’t underperformed this way before. We know that we are not playing good cricket. But our team has bounced back from this situation before and, hopefully, we will come out of this situation.” Shadab Khan draws hope from history as he admits Pakistan’s recent failings
Danyal Rasool is ESPNcricinfo’s Pakistan correspondent. @Danny61000