Batsmen in a fight for respect
At the beginning of Misbah's reign, Pakistan drew a series against South Africa. Expectations were low, and the dead wickets of the Emirates helped, but Pakistan seemed ripe for humiliation. It was a quiet statement of intent to symbolise the silent revolution of Misbah-ul Haq. Now Pakistan begin another Test series against South Africa, on this occasion on the dreaded wickets of Johannesburg and Cape Town, and the greatest compliment to Pakistan's progress is that the world's No. 1 team is taking Pakistan seriously.
It is hard to champion great expectations for this series. Pakistan invariably struggle in South Africa, even when they bring the best fast bowlers in the world with them. Those fast men have sometimes humbled South Africa but Pakistan's batsmen have rarely failed to find a lower gear. The ball bounces. The ball moves. It doesn't even have to do so at speed as Shaun Pollock has shown often enough. Pakistan's best batsmen nibble. They prod and poke. Thank you and good night.
Still, I cannot remember as resolute a bunch as this venturing to South African shores? We can expect true grit from Misbah and Younis Khan. Azhar Ali is cut from diligent cloth. Asad Shafiq will battle. Nasir Jamshed has quickly adapted his one-day game to encourage longevity and must be capable of the same in Tests. Mohammad Hafeez will urge his mind to the correct method although the Professor's feet are less reliable. That's Pakistan's top order right there, a grinder to the last man.
Warriors old and new are about to face what might be their toughest ever batting challenge. South Africa's bowling bullies and dominates. The pitches spit and seam. The aggression of the fielding side is multiplied by the hostility of crowds. An Asian batsman may never feel so far from home or comfort zone.
Yet such adversity is made for heroes. There is nothing to lose. No Pakistan batsman has ever dominated in South Africa except Azhar Mahmood. He is now British. The highest average belongs to Taufeeq Umar. It will stay with him as he nurtures a leg injury. Saleem Malik's achievements are too sour to celebrate. Inzamam-ul Haq, Mohammad Yousuf, and Younis--the major Pakistan batsmen of the last decade--have never amounted to much. A situation is vacant for a Pakistani lion to tame South Africa.
Equally, fast bowling is one of Pakistan's strengths. Junaid Khan and Umar Gul will make Pakistan competitive on any pitch that helps South Africa. Mohammad Irfan, a man with stilts for legs, should be frightening and unplayable, provided Dav Whatmore can coax sufficient focus and fitness. A 90 mph ball leaping at your throat from a good length isn't anybody's idea of a pleasant afternoon.
Pakistan are superior in spin bowling. Saeed Ajmal, the world's No. 1 bowler by some definitions, is a threat on any wicket. Abdur Rehman's zippy left-arm deliveries are unlikely to be slowed down by the intoxication of recreational drugs. In return, Imran Tahir and Robin Peterson are a more ordinary challenge. Given a spinner's wicket, Pakistan will dominate. But who will be daft enough to give them that?
Pakistan's bowling deserves respect but the batsmen will need to quickly earn respect if Pakistan are to salvage anything from this series. In such circumstances, the resilience of the lower order can be decisive. A decent showing in the tour match is encouraging but Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel, and Vernon Philander did not feature. This African examination, no doubt, has come too early in the development of Misbah's Pakistan team, and the hosts are strong favourites. Success for Pakistan will be that South Africa are still taking them seriously at the end of the Test series. The responsibility for this rests with Pakistan's batsmen. But when Imran Farhat's name appears on the team sheet we will know that Pakistan, forget South Africa, have finally stopped taking themselves seriously.
Kamran Abbasi is an editor, writer and broadcaster. He tweets here