Pakistan 267 for 5 (Imam 86, Hafeez 71*) beat South Africa 266 for 2 (Amla 108*, van der Dussen 93) by five wickets

It didn’t come without the signature Pakistan wobble, promising to derail the whole thing. But Pakistan got their tour off and running with what, in the circumstances, must be considered a clinical victory even if it did come in the final over. It came thanks to a glorious 86 at the top of the order from Imam-ul-Haq and a classy half-century from Mohammad Hafeez at the end in a chase that was – for 40 overs at least – scripted to perfection.

South Africa appeared to have left some runs out there with some conservative batting, despite a century from Hashim Amla and Rassie van der Dussen’s 93 on debut. In an absorbing game of fine margins, that made all the difference in the end as Pakistan wrapped up a five-wicket win.

Chasing 267, more than Pakistan have ever successfully overhauled against South Africa in South Africa, they began steadily enough, even if the out-of-form Fakhar Zaman was streaky for the duration of his cameo at the top. It was the partnership between Imam and Babar Azam that broke the back of the chase, the 94 runs they added keeping the asking rate in check. More importantly, they arrived in comfortable fashion, with none of South Africa’s storied fast bowlers able to make the slightest inroad, giving the impression this would be a cakewalk.

It was the innocuous spin bowling of Reeza Hendricks that broke the pair up. It is safe to say Hendricks doesn’t bowl too many jaffas in a spell, but even by those standards, the ball which got rid of Pakistan’s best batsman was well below average. Hendricks had dropped one in far too short, and as Babar looked to guide it to third man for the single that would bring him a half century, he miscalculated the line, allowing it to crash into his stumps.

Still, the ball wasn’t doing much and there was little South Africa could do to stop Pakistan keeping the asking rate under six. It was only when the chase came down to the final stages, and Imran Tahir’s influence began to grow, that Pakistan began to panic slightly. Once Shoaib Malik chopped Andile Phehlukwayo on with 49 needed, Pakistan began to feel the pressure and the dots grew more plentiful. Sarfraz Ahmed was struck in front and, shortly after, the asking rate rose to seven an over.

Hafeez, however, was playing the type of innings he has so often throughout his career in the middle overs without quite getting the credit it merits. On a slow surface, he timed the ball better than almost anyone from either side – perhaps even Amla – regularly finding the boundary that would relieve the pressure. Twice, when he sought to go over the top, he did so effectively reading the pace and bounce off the surface. He might not have hit the winning runs, but when the last ball of the penultimate over was smashed to the midwicket boundary, bringing the scored level, he did all but.

In their innings, South Africa showed flexibility with the bat to construct a total of 266. Despite only losing two wickets getting there, the home side might have felt they could keep Pakistan at bay on a slow pitch. Amla’s 27th ODI century ran like a spine through the innings, with van der Dussen keeping him excellent company during a 155-run partnership.

The nature of the pitch, better suited to spin than any other in South Africa, perhaps explained Pakistan’s selection. Imad Wasim operated as early as the seventh over, while Hafeez, Shadab Khan and Fakhar Zaman all got a bowl. It may also explain why Pakistan are yet to lose an ODI at this ground, winning all three games that produced a result.

After choosing to bat, South Africa appeared to make preservation of wickets their central priority, with only one lost in the first 46 overs. With hindsight, though, there is little question South Africa were too conservative in spite of the challenges of the surface.

Only a late flurry, with 76 scored off the last ten, got them close to the 275 they had seemed on track for throughout the innings. Pakistan’s bowlers made up with control what they had lacked in penetration, with Shadab and Hasan Ali the picks; South Africa’s scoring rate tailed off almost precisely when the duo were introduced in the 15th over.

Amla averaged just 28.63 in 2018 but clicked back into gear here, his full repertoire available for the viewing pleasure of the Port Elizabeth crowd. The wristwork was a delight to behold, present in almost every one of the eight boundaries throughout his innings, his ability to spot even the slightest lapse in length or availability of width exceptionally early the marker of a batsmen whose form woes are behind him. When three figures were reached, they arrived with a six over cow corner to produce the loudest cheer of the afternoon.

Van der Dussen alongside him initially appeared to have taken too much time to get himself set, but from the moment he reached his half-century with a six over midwicket, he caught up with the deliveries in quick time. The last 49 runs of his innings came in 37 balls; his first 44 had taken 64. In the end, it was a high full toss that he mistimed to mid-off that denied him a hundred on debut. But faced with the task to scoring quickly towards the end, there was no time for personal indulgence.

There was little personal indulgence on Pakistan’s side either, with the chase being a true team effort. Two half-centuries and a 49 helped Pakistan get there, and for all the talk of the sour dressing room environment earlier on in the tour, there will be little but cheerful laughter emanating from it after a much-needed victory.

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