With the 2019 World Cup looming large, the Proteas’ five ODIs against Pakistan will prove to be vital to preparation.
The Proteas will face Pakistan again later this year in a match that could be massively significant in determining the semi-finalists for cricket’s global showpiece. On paper, the tournament is set to be dominated by England and India, but Pakistan, South Africa and New Zealand will all feel that reaching the last four would constitute a qualified passing grade.
South Africa and Pakistan play ODI cricket in a similar way, effectively relying on their bowlers to overperform in order to make up for inconsistent batsmen. The Proteas probably have a slight edge in terms of batting potency, but Pakistan are better equipped to handle spin in the middle overs.
‘Consistency’ will be the watchword in this World Cup year more than before, with the format reverting to a 10-team open pool. Six wins in nine games is likely to be enough to claim a place in the semi-finals – and for Pakistan and South Africa achieving that benchmark will be made that much harder for the team that loses the match at Lord’s on 23 June 2019.
Pakistan and South Africa both play hosts and tournament favourites England early in the group phase, with the former having to face the prospect of meeting Eoin Morgan’s men at the ODI batting paradise of Trent Bridge. The two sides meet in the fourth week of the tournament – and both should still be contending for a place in the semi-finals then.
A convincing performance from the Proteas at home will set them up well for that clash that comes shortly after Pakistan meet India – and South Africa face New Zealand. Both sides should already be formulating plans for each World Cup match.
The nature of both teams will mean that their respective supporters will not be satisfied unless the cup comes home. The fixture will be hugely significant in determining whether either side crack the top four – and will be one both will feel they must win. When they meet, both teams will have faced India and England and a failure to get results against those teams, who will be heavily favoured, would add greater importance to their meeting at the home of cricket.
That said, the benchmark for a successful bilateral series will be different for each side.
After being thumped in the Test series, Pakistan will want to be competitive – and will probably feel that winning two out of five ODIs would suggest they have the quality to compete at the World Cup.
For the Proteas, the initial goal must be not to give Pakistan a sniff at all. A five-nil series shutout would provide the ideal basis for the Proteas’ World Cup preparation. Winning five-nil will require a fair amount of luck or an implosion from Pakistan, so a four-one series win will also amount to a successful series for Ottis Gibson’s charges.
Neither the Proteas nor Pakistan are likely to make too many changes to their current groups, but both sides need their best batsmen to find form – and do so in a hurry.
Keeping their bowlers fit will be at the forefront of the minds of coaches Gibson and Mickey Arthur, something which could influence selection in the series that starts at St George’s Park on 19 January.
The result of this bilateral series will be used as a barometer for both side’s progress under their respective coaches, though Arthur comes into it under decidedly more pressure than Gibson.
This series should be a fascinating one, full of subplots and great cricket – and both teams will be hoping that their well-worn self-destruct buttons aren’t deployed.