Watching Pakistan play cricket is like pulling on that irritating piece of skin on the side of your nail. You know you shouldn’t but you also know it will annoy you if you don’t. Then you do it. You scream in pain. Then get angry at yourself. Then hurl all those words mummy told you were wrong at your finger and run off to get a plaster (only because mummy can’t kiss it better).
When watching South Africa, on the other hand, you put on all your supernatural talismans, hold all the thumbs (unless you’re tweeting your disgust at that poor shot selection from AB de Villiers) and not mentioning certain C-words.
Both sets of fans are some of the most vocal, celebrating with gusto and hyperbole when their team wins and criticising them in the most obscene and brutal manner when they lose. And the reporters?
After Pakistan’s 134-run loss to arch-rivals India in their opening game of the ICC Champions Trophy, Coach Mickey Arthur was asked “Will you take the blame for Pakistan’s loss?”, and was told “It’s been a year [since you took over] and Pakistan are playing even worse”, and finally this gem: “Will this defeat take Pakistan cricket backwards?”
Arthur cut a desolate, irritated figure, continuously touching his forehead and closing his eyes and throwing in a few huffs and puffs. But facing that barrage of questions I would have run back to my mummy. Cricinfo’s Jarrod Kimber minced no words when he wrote: “Pakistan turned up on time, and all their players remembered to wear green. That’s all the positives covered.”
The Proteas, however, have faced a more positive side of the media leading up to and into the tournament. Everyone expects them to win. They have the top-two ODI bowlers in Kagiso Rabada and Imran Tahir and they have four of the top 10 best batsmen in ODIs including captain De Villiers who sits at the top. They are also the number one ranked team in the world. And have just beaten Sri Lanka by 96 runs. But that’s not all. South Africa have faced Pakistan in six ODI tournaments and have won five of them. Why wouldn’t you back them?
The last time they played each other in a tournament was in that (now infamous for South Africa) ICC World Cup in New Zealand. Pakistan won by 29 runs in a rain-affected match. That was the game that cemented current Pakistan captain Sarfraz Ahmed’s place in the ODI side, with a run-a-ball 49 and six catches behind the wickets to earn him man of the match. The Proteas were favoured to win that game but collapsed (the one C-word, we won’t use the other one). Fond memories are bound to be a float for the new captain. Also the last time South Africa played Pakistan in a series was in November 2013, losing 1-2 at home. History is not on South Africa’s side.
But the complexion of both teams has changed. Pakistan does not have the experience of former captain Misbah-ul-Haq, the stability of Younis Khan or the fire power of Shahid Afridi. South Africa has grown and developed into the team to beat with a deep batting line-up and a bowling attack that is as varied and deadly as any we’ve seen in the recent past.
If South Africa win they will have taken the second important step to a spot in the semi-finals, while Pakistan must win to keep their hopes (and that of their fans) alive.
Arthur, for all his disgust after the first game, believes his team have what it takes to beat a firing Proteas side, as long as they overcome the “fear” that they are currently experiencing.
And De Villiers and his troops will be looking to exploit this fear.
“We don’t feel any pressure. We feel it’s an opportunity, once again in this tournament to shift the pressure on to all the opposition we might face.”
As long as the rain stays away in Edgbaston (which it will, according to the weather-whisperers) – and the memories of the semi-final of World Cup 1999 – we will be in for a massive win by South Africa.
But a word of caution to team #ProteaFire: Pakistan cricket are the most unpredictable side in sports. Dismiss them at your peril.