Pakistan v Zimbabwe, The Oval, 10 June 1999by John Ward
Why you should watch: One team will go into the Super Six. But which? Both teams are quite unpredictable.
Zimbabwe player to watch: Neil Johnson
Pakistan player to watch: Wasim Akram
Listen on the stump mike for: Plenty of indecipherable excitement from the Pakistanis if they get on top. Plenty different indecipherables should the wheels come off!
Neutrals may care to enjoy: The sight of Neil Johnson taking on the Pakistani attack from which he scored his first Test century. The cunning of Wasim as bowler and captain, together with possible fireworks with the bat.
Schadenfreide potential: The agitation of the Pakistanis if the match starts slipping away. Even more agitation from Pakistani supporters in the crowd; there could be a problem here.
Old lags: Saleem Malik (37).
Young pups: Shahid Afridi and Abdur Razzaq (both 19 - officially)
CricInfo prediction: A Pakistan victory, probably close.
Neither side has yet won a Super Six match, although Zimbabwe did take a crucial point in the rain-ruined match against New Zealand. If defeated, Zimbabwe will probably still scrape into the semi-finals; Pakistan probably will not. This match between two unpredictable teams could be a thriller.
Given Pakistanís long-term record, it was perhaps predictable that sometime their bubble would burst. It was not so predictable that Bangladesh would burst it, but burst it they did, and South Africa and India have both cashed in on it. Zimbabwe will be hoping to do the same. But this match is probably Pakistanís last chance, and they tend toi fight like the proverbial cornered tiger when there is nowhere else to go.
If Zimbabwe were in a similar position, they might well write themselves off and then go on to win, as indeed they did in South Africa when seemingly doomed to a first-round exit. But now they have a good, but not assured, chance of winning through to the third level, the semi-finals, the occasion might well prove too much for them, as they so often find unprecedented heights liable to stress them out.
On the other hand, Zimbabwe have played some of their best cricket against Pakistan. Two of their three Test victories have been at Pakistanís expense, the most recent being only six months ago and in the tigerís own den. On the same tour they also won their first one-day international in Pakistan, although losing that series 2-1. It is not a new experience for them; they know all about beating Pakistan better than they do any of their other Test-playing opponents.
The pitch could play an important part. Zimbabwe coach Dave Houghton points out than in fact Zimbabwe have performed much better against Pakistan on green pitches rather than flat tracks. The reason, he says, is firstly that Zimbabwean batsmen play much better in these conditions than the Pakistanis do, and secondly that both teams have bowlers able to exploit green pitches, but the Pakistani attack has the advantage in good batting conditions of being able to reverse-swing the ball. If there is any sign of life or movement at The Oval, the captain winning the toss is likely to send in the opposition.
One remarkable fact about the Zimbabwean team is that, despite their likely qualification to the semi-finals, Neil Johnson is the only player to produce his best form with any consistency on this tour. Grant Flower, Goodwin, Campbell and Whittall have all failed to average the 30 or more that is expected of them, while Andy Flower, after two successive Super Six ducks, only just scrapes the 30-mark. Similarly Johnson is the only bowler to average better than 26, with Paul Strang a particular disappointment - although it was predictable that England in early season would not be spinner-friendly. If the other ten players were to get their act together, this really would be a team to reckon with.
Pakistan, on the other hand, have Yousuf Youhana (who has a magnificent record against Zimbabwe but may not be fit to play), Moin Khan and Inzamam-ul-Haq all averaging better than 35 with the bat. In addition all four of their main bowlers - Wasim, Shoaib, Saqlain and Azhar - all average better than 25, and Abdur Razzaq is not far behind. Despite their three successive defeats, Pakistan would be the computerís favourites to win this match well.
Zimbabwe have great respect for Pakistan, especially their bowlers, but do not fear them. Most of the Zimbabwean batsmen, asked to name the best bowler they have ever faced, plumped for Wasim; most of the rest mentioned Saqlain. Admittedly Zimbabwe have rarely had the opportunity to face the Australian or West Indian bowlers, but these are genuine compliments; the other side of the coin is that Zimbabweís batsmen have had plenty of experience and some success in handling them.
But computers cannot measure confidence and morale, and the Pakistanis have taken the worse battering over the past two weeks. They have the greater individual talent, the greater experience and the greater incentive, albeit a negative one. But all that can safely be predicted about these two teams in their unpredictability: Zimbabweís because of the nervous tension this tournament stirs up within them, and Pakistanís because it is in the very nature of the players.