Pakistan cricket team
Pakistan cricketers seen during a practice session ahead of their 2023 ICC Men's Cricket World Cup match against South Africa at the MA Chidambaram Stadium in Chennai on October 25, 2023. Image Credit: AFP

Chennai: South Africa’s batters have ruled at three venues in the Cricket World Cup and going by their six-hitting template, they surely aren’t going to change their approach against a struggling Pakistan bowling attack in Chennai on Friday.

South Africa has eight points from its four lopsided wins in five games and is second in the standings behind unbeaten India. Netherlands sprung one of the biggest upsets in tournament history when it beat the South Africans by 38 runs at Dharamsala in a rain-curtailed game.

Pakistan, the 1992 World Cup champion, is in the must-win zone with four points from five matches. Babar Azam’s squad Pakistan seems completely out of sorts after its back-to-back opening wins over Netherlands and Sri Lanka.

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Losses to archrival India, five-time champion Australia and Afghanistan followed. Afghanistan's historic eight-wicket win was against a visibly fatigued Pakistan bowling attack.

An upset loss like that doesn't necessarily have to be tournament-defining, as South Africa showed by rebounding quickly from its loss to the Dutch.

Quinton de Kock went close to fulfilling his wish of scoring a double century in his final international tournament before retirement but fell short by 26 runs against Bangladesh in South Africa's most recent win. It was his third century in five games.

South Africa virtually batted out former champions Sri Lanka, Australia and England after setting big targets. There was no pause in the relentless power-hitting against Bangladesh, either, resulting in another triple-figure win.

“He (de Kock) assesses conditions well and communicates that to us even before we get out onto the field,” South Africa’s stand-in skipper Aiden Markram said after the Bangladesh game. “You never want to clip his wings, you just want to let him fly.”

The brilliance of de Kock, Markram and Rassie van der Dussen upfront provides license to Heinrich Klassen and David Miller to explode in the last batting powerplay that has flattened all sorts of bowlers at Lucknow, New Delhi and Mumbai.

With a tally of 407 runs in five games, de Kock sits at the top of the tournament scoring charts. Klassen (288) and Markram (265) are also ranked in top 10 batters. The left-handed de Kock, who will be playing his 151st ODI on Friday, takes time before gradually accelerating both against pace and spin.

Klassen and Miller’s onslaughts have seen South Africa scoring at more than 13 runs an over in the last 10 overs against Sri Lanka, England and Bangladesh, virtually settling the games in the Proteas' favor before their opposition came out to chase.

The three-pronged pace attack comprising Kagiso Rabada, Marco Jansen and Gerald Coetzee all have taken 10 wickets apiece, denting the opposing lineups with their brilliant lengths. The left-arm spin of Keshav Maharaj, who has picked up seven wickets, has also come in handy.

“There isn’t necessarily a blueprint, but guys understand how to approach it,” Markram said. “We have a big focus on playing conditions and not necessarily situations too much. As a unit, we keep saying to look down at the surface and not up at the scoreboard and play exactly what’s in front of us on the pitch.”

The stunning loss against Afghanistan has hurt Pakistan’s campaign, and one more defeat could well effectively put them out of contention for a semifinal spot.

The cracks in Pakistan's bowling armory started to appear as early as the second game when Sri Lanka piled up 344 against the likes of Shaheen Afridi, Haris Rauf and Hasan Ali, while spinners Shadab Khan and Mohammad Nawaz also kept searching for the right lengths.

Australia further demoralized the Pakistan attack when it posted a total of 367, before Afghanistan's top-order batters, led by Rahmanullah Gurbaz and Ibrahim Zadran, completely demolished the confidence of Babar's bowlers when it chased down 283 with ease.

Fielding is the other area where Pakistan has struggled badly, and that hasn’t gone down well with Babar.

“Your focus should be on the ball, not on other thoughts … as a fielder you have to be proactive, (but) we are lagging as a fielding unit," he said.

Babar is yet to score a century in this World Cup and his two half centuries – against India and Afghanistan – both ended up in a losing cause. Bowlers have capitalized on opening batter Imam-ul-Haq’s vulnerability against short pitched deliveries while Mohammad Rizwan’s only spark came in the successful run-chase against Sri Lanka.

Afridi hasn’t picked up early wickets and Rauf has conceded plenty of runs. Pakistan has even tried a combination of both leg-spinners – Usama Mir and Shadab – but they too gave away too many boundary balls.

But everything is not lost for Babar.

“It’s cricket, anything can happen,” he said. “We will try to play our best cricket till the end. There are a lot of matches left, we will try to win all the matches. We will try to overcome our mistakes.”