Big Bird II must fly
For anybody thinking the only way is up for Pakistan in this Test series, think again. Misbah-ul Haq's team was competitive in two innings in Johannesburg, which leaves plenty of room for improvement and an equal amount for deterioration. South Africa dominated after the first hit, with their big players ensuring a happy centenary for Graeme Smith. Pakistan cannot match South Africa for big players but they do have the biggest bird. Mohammad Irfan, acolyte of the original Big Bird, Joel Garner, was a surprise omission from the first Test. The wrong must be righted. The scene is set in Cape Town. Big Bird II, the Gaggu Mandi version, must take wing.
Fast bowlers have never come taller than Irfan. Humans over 7ft tall are rare, cricketers at that height are rarer still. When he first appeared on the international scene in 2010, Irfan looked unfit and lacked control of line and length, pretty much struggling with all the attributes required to succeed at international level. On the recent tour of India, however, Irfan was a different prospect, offering control and sustained speed, a remarkable transformation and feather in the cap of the people who have guided him in the interim.
Let's be in no doubt, South Africa were wary of Irfan. The batsmen made plans, as top teams will for a perceived threat. They raised the sightscreens to nullify his high delivery point. But Irfan wasn't risked. The bird was left in its cage. Instead, another fledgling, Rahat Ali, filled a space on the team sheet, nothing more. South Africa, with their battle hardened batsmen, will lose no sleep over him. They will be cautious, at best, against Umar Gul; while Junaid Khan is a serious threat, not a mortal danger.
Irfan, meanwhile, is something different; unknown and unknowable, a physical extreme that can redefine the realms of possibility. No sane batsman would choose to face a 90mph bowler of his height on South African wickets--add Australian wickets to that, and some too in England, New Zealand, and the West Indies. A man who can make India's best batsmen hop on home turf deserves his chance in the land of the springbok. On song, Irfan can unsettle South Africa's batsmen--and that is what is required and that is why Irfan is a risk worth taking.
Irfan's inclusion may be the only change to Pakistan's team. A collective failure from the batsmen should not lead to any change, especially now that Nasir Jamshed and Mohammad Hafeez look to have recovered from injury and ailment. Misbah has rejected a three-opener solution, although Imran Farhat's Midas luck can never be underestimated.
Pakistan's only chance is to find a way of hitting back at South Africa, conservative tactics will not work. With the personnel at Misbah's command, the batting effort will only ever be steady. It is in wicket taking bowlers that Pakistan have hope of ruffling South African feathers. Saeed Ajmal, Junaid, and Irfan are a combination that South Africa, nay any batting order, will be concerned about, whatever the misadventures of Pakistan's batsmen.
Kamran Abbasi is an editor, writer and broadcaster. He tweets here