After disappointing losses in the Test and One-Day International series, Pakistan would have harboured hopes of a much-improved show in their favourite format, where they are the No.1 side in the world. Well, the performances were certainly better, but eventually not good enough as South Africa held their nerves in both Twenty20 Internationals which went down the wire to take an unassailable 2-0 lead in the three-match series.
The two teams will now travel to SuperSport Park in Centurion for a final showdown and the visitors will be keen on ending a series which hasn’t quite gone their way, on a positive note. Having said that, both games so far have been evenly contested affairs, but when it mattered most, South Africa have managed to win the key moments.
In the first outing, Pakistan, pursuing 193, were kept in the hunt throughout by Shoaib Malik, Hussain Talat and Babar Azam before a cluster of wickets at the end fizzled out the chase. Then in the last encounter at Wanderers, Pakistan were well on their way in pursuit of 189 and cruising on 147/1 in the 17th over. However, another flurry of wickets coupled with the failure of the set batsmen to accelerate saw them needing too much to do at the end as they went down by 7 runs.
More than the batting though, it has been the bowlers who have lacked the fight and consistency. If it was the first 15 overs in the first game, in the second T20I the Pakistan bowlers conceded 73 runs in their last five overs. While Imad Wasim and Shaheen Shah Afridi have been excellent at the start, the likes of Usman Shinwari, Hasan Ali and leg-spinner Shadab Khan have just not backed them. Shinwari conceded 29 runs in the last over of the previous T20I which might well have been the difference between a Pakistan win and a loss.
A bowling lineup which has been known for stifling oppositions in the past can ill-afford such lapses. Stand-in captain Shoaib Malik will hope his bowlers can come up with the goods one final time in the tour.
As far as the batting is concerned, Babar Azam has looked head and shoulders above the rest. He looked a class apart in the second T20I and it was a shame his 58-ball 90 was not enough for Pakistan to close the chase. He batted with fluidity, kept maneuvering the gaps and his ability to find the fence on a consistent basis was unparalleled.
“Two years ago when I saw him in the nets I said that he was going to be as good as Virat Kohli. From a young boy back then he has developed into a man now. He has got stronger and fitter. And, I certainly think he is going to be in the top five in the world across all formats very, very soon," said coach Mickey Arthur about Azam after the game.
However, as good as Azam has been in the series, he hasn’t always found the support. Fakhar Zaman has been woefully out of form this whole tour and while Talat has been amongst the runs in both outings, they haven’t come at a healthy strike-rate. Asif Ali has failed to get going and more often than not Malik has come in at a stage when there has been a lot left to be done. A more collective effort with the bat is what Malik will be hoping from his side.
With the ball, Pakistan will want the likes of Hasan, Shinwari and Shadab to step up and put in a better showing. There is also a chance Pakistan might bring back Mohammad Hafeez to provide the middle-order with a bit more stability, probably in place of Asif.
South Africa, on the other hand, can sit back and give their bench strength a fair go with the series already in the bag. What would have pleased the hosts even more with the efforts in both games is the fact that they achieved victories without key players such as Quinton de Kock, Dale Steyn, Kagiso Rabada, Faf du Plessis and Lungi Ngidi.
All the players that have come in have done their bit be it debutants Janneman Malan and Lutho Sipamla in the previous game or Rassie van der Dussen and Andile Phehlukwayo. Sipamla came in for a lot of praise in his debut game where his four overs went for just 23 runs when the required was well above nine an over. The pacers Chris Morris and Beuran Hendricks have kept at it all through providing key breakthroughs at the start while Tabraiz Shamsi, with his wrist-spin, has been tough to get away.
Captaincy has also done wonders to David Miller who was handed the reins for the final two T20Is. It was his blistering 29-ball 65* in the previous outing that tilted the scales in South Africa’s favour and nothing short of a 3-0 whitewash is going to please the left-hander.
South Africa have won four and lost three of their T20I games at SuperSport Park. They went down to Pakistan in the only 20-over encounter these two teams have had at the venue and will be keen on leveling that record. The surface is expected to be batting-friendly with another high-scoring encounter in the offing. But like it is with most South African venues, there should be something in it for the fast bowlers early on. Weather is expected to be excellent for a game of cricket and chances of rain are minimal.
South Africa: Gihahn Cloete, Junior Dala, Beuran Hendricks, Reeza Hendricks, Heinrich Klaasen, David Miller (c), Chris Morris, Willem Mulder, Andile Phehlukwayo, Tabraiz Shamsi, Rassie van der Dussen, Lutho Sipamla, Janneman Malan
Pakistan: Asif Ali, Babar Azam, Faheem Ashraf, Fakhar Zaman, Hasan Ali, Hussain Talat, Imad Wasim, Mohammad Amir, Mohammad Hafeez, Sahibzada Farhan, Shadab Khan, Shaheen Afridi, Shoaib Malik (c), Usman Shinwari, Mohammad Rizwan