Sunday could well be Benoni’s biggest day since Charlize Theron won the Oscar. International cricket seldom reaches Johannesburg’s East Rand and when it does, it is unlikely to be this meaningful. For both South Africa and Pakistan, its Benoni or bust in their last outing before the Champions Trophy and they will have a sell-out crowd to do that in front of.
The series has got steadily more competitive as it has progressed, so the 8,500-odd people can expect a fiery affair especially because there is more than just a trophy on the line for both teams. Reputation tends to mean more than silverware in bilateral ODI series anyway.
For South Africa, it is a chance to give their home fans a format to cheer them in that is not Test cricket and to prove to them they have developed as a limited-overs unit. After winning all five longest form fixtures, South Africa’s Twenty20 and ODI squads did not follow suit. They are in transition but even a phase of change cannot go on without some reward.
Sporadically, South Africa have had it. They blew Pakistan away in Bloemfontein and defended stoically at the Wanderers. But consistently, they have not. When forced into situations from which they have to respond unconventionally, they struggle – an indication that the evolution into a complete unit is still, as Gary Kirsten would put it, in process.
For Pakistan, the picture may not be that big. They are more likely to be focused on the immediate goal of leaving this tour with enough to be able to call it a success. Misbah-ul-Haq indicated at the very beginning that he expected the Test phase to be difficult but the limited-overs contests to be the area in which Pakistan could push South Africa and even topple them over.
So far, they have. They’ve exposed the hosts’ obvious weaknesses and demonstrated some of their own major strengths. They will want one more big effort to underline those and there would be no better place to that than in the decider.
Instead of one player, it will be South Africa’s collective mental strength under scrutiny as they find themselves in a must-win situation. Understandably, it is not a major tournament knockout game and it may have absolutely no bearing on one, but is still a test of character more than it is one of skill and if South Africa have lacked in either department, it is the first. The team will have to take responsibility as a whole and watching how they work together in trying to win the series will be more important than any individual brilliance.
Similarly, Pakistan’s big match temperament will be challenged. Twice, they have needed to come back in the rubber and twice they have. Both times, they’ve got the bit between their teeth early. If that happens again, they are likely to run away with it. If it doesn’t, they will have to be up to clambering their way out of trouble. Shahid Afridi showed how to do it at the Wanderers but it may take more than one firework to light up the contest.
However, the victory for Pakistan would give them their first win in a bilateral series over South Africa while WillowmoorePark is best known for two things: it was the first ground in the country to have floodlights and it was the venue of Dennis Compton’s 300 in a first-class match in 1948-49
“It’s two great teams and it was bound to happen that the results would go up and down like a rollercoaster,” said David Miller who is not surprised that the series is deadlocked going into the final match.
“Whenever you come to different conditions, you struggle and not sure when you’re starting a series, what you can do in these sorts of surfaces, but after winning two games and levelling the series 2-2 and after seeing different players perform, we are a bit sure and you grow your confidence,” said Misbah-ul-Haq.