Pakistan v South Africa, 3rd ODI, Dubai
Nervy South Africa hang on for win
South Africa 228 for 9 (Amla 119*, Shoaib 3-39) beat Pakistan 226 for 9 (Fawad 59*, Morne Morkel 4-47) by two runs
They fell apart again at the death but ultimately a hundred from Hashim Amla and four wickets from Morne Morkel were just about enough to sneak South Africa home in the third ODI in Dubai. A second death-overs meltdown in two games let Pakistan come within two runs, but a 2-1 series lead was secured.
South Africa were exceptional for 42 overs in defending 229. Pakistan had just lost Abdul Razzaq, they needed 76 on a sluggish, boundary-shy surface: game over. But Morkel, Rusty Theron and Lonwabo Tsotsobe lost their minds, nerves, lengths and lines. Fielders began to drop catches as Wahab Riaz, of all batsmen, smashed an 11-ball 21 and, with Fawad Alam, pillaged 56 runs in the Powerplay. Ultimately, despite a panic-stricken last over from Theron, Pakistan just didn't have enough batsmen. Alam remained unbeaten on 59, valiant but not deal-sealing.
Before that, Morkel and Tsotsobe had opened with sterling spells. The visitors have made light of Dale Steyn's absence, mainly because Tsotsobe has had a fine series. He is uncomplicated, using the natural left-arm angle well and has subtle changes in pace. If he hasn't bowled an outstanding spell that will stick in the mind, neither has he bowled a poor one. Today was no different.
Having Morkel at the other end, bowling with unspeaking meanness, helps. Morkel gave nothing away for long, not on width, not on length; both the pace and bounce added to an unceasing atmosphere. One over to Younis Khan was particularly good, five dot balls which left him nowhere to go but out, and he was, off the last ball.
The first ten overs ceded 23 and one boundary. With Pakistan not going anywhere, the fielding took over. In any case Imran Farhat was as lively as a library and as awake as a morgue to scoring opportunities. The arrival of Asad Shafiq got things moving but so tightly did South Africa police the field that a run-out looked inevitable. Eventually it came breaking a labored but vital 85-run stand. Soon after, a cramping Shafiq went the same way. Morkel returned, just as mean, and dismissed Shahid Afridi. He set the tone for Razzaq, bowling short or shortish, and giving him nothing remotely full and that should have been that.
But if nothing else, Amla's fifth hundred of the year, a masterful knock deserved the win. But for him South Africa would've been nowhere and we would've been lauding a match-winning spell from Shoaib Akhtar.
From the start, there were two pitches, one for Amla and another, sluggish one, for the rest. He hit nine out of his side's total 12 boundaries. Two in the first over solidified the impression that he has batted in one unbroken stretch since the first ODI. Where others couldn't time it, he glided along, utilizing the modern batsman's get-out clause - a dab to third man - liberally.
Occasionally he improvised, but mostly he just stayed cool. That helped, given the outrageous decision that sent back AB de Villiers. An important partnership had been constructed when in Afridi's first over, TV umpire Zameer Haider chose to give de Villiers out stumped when he was distinctly in. Others gave Amla some support but it was a one-man job.
A brace of boundaries paved the way for a hassle-free fifty just before the halfway mark. Then he disappeared, quietly picking off runs here and there. He emerged once on 78, when Shafiq dropped a sharp chance at cover, and again when cutting Saeed Ajmal twice to move into the 90s.
A dab to third man - what else? - brought up the hundred just before the batting Powerplay became mandatory. He then found the odd boundary, a classy drive past mid-off and a rare, ungainly pull, but most importantly he stayed unbeaten till the end, not sweating at all.
Shoaib's work thus took a back seat. Amid standard turmoil this year, Shoaib has quietly managed as impressive a comeback as any of his previous ones. He still has the pace, but the shortened run-up and seemingly permanent limp, reduces the visual a little. The smarts are very much intact.
He stifled South Africa at the start, rolling in casually and mixing up some solid length bowling with excellent changes of pace; no less a man than Jacques Kallis, returning for Robin Peterson, was deceived by one. Colin Ingram could only pop another slower one back soon after.
This was the 11th ODI in a row Shoaib has played since his return earlier this year for the Asia Cup , the longest, unbroken stretch he has had since 2002 (joint-second longest ever in his career). Any questions over his fitness were forgotten in later spells. He gave one run in two overs during the middle, even making the set-as-cement Amla jump around. He then came back to rattle and shake Johan Botha, only a poor last over to regret. Eleven came off that, important in the big picture.