One-day testing ground important for Pakistan
Strange occurrences are common in Pakistan cricket. Perhaps one of the deepest mysteries for future generations to decipher will be how Pakistan decided to challenge the world's undisputed No. 1 Test team with a squad packed with rookies? Some of the criticism of the team and coaching staff has been bizarre; nobody seriously expected Pakistan to beat South Africa. But a legitimate beef is that Pakistan pitted colts against thoroughbreds. Bowlers with no Test experience, sometimes no speed, were asked to dominate the best batting unit in Test cricket.
This particular aspect of the failure is alarming for a country that prides itself on its bowling riches. Pakistan's bowling attack looks a more formidable prospect in limited-overs cricket - much of this is because two of the most frustrating players of the last decade show promise for the longer game but are ultimately one-day specialists. Umar Gul and Mohammad Hafeez are frequent match-winners in both 50-over and T20 cricket. In Test cricket they struggle to influence a match in Pakistan's favour.
Influence, we know, is hard to measure: it isn't just about averages and strike rates. Take Gul for example. He sits just outside the top ten of Pakistan's all-time highest wicket-takers, ahead of Fazal Mahmood. His average, a touch over 34, isn't world beating but it is decent. Dig a little deeper though, and the statistics tell a different story. In matches that Pakistan have won, Gul's influence has been minimal. He has played in 16 victories, taking a five-wicket haul only twice in 32 innings. By comparison, Shoaib Akhtar played in 20 victories, taking a five-wicket haul on seven occasions in 38 innings.
For Gul's bowling read Mohammad Hafeez's all-round contribution. Pakistan's Test cricket has progressed despite carrying some experienced passengers. With Misbah-ul Haq approaching the end of his shelf life and no Test cricket for many months, Pakistan must use one-day internationals to develop replacements for the Test team. The new rules for 50-over cricket have nudged it closer to Test cricket by encouraging attacking bowling and more refined batting.
The interest, then, in this one-day contest with South Africa lies in which players can begin to show the necessary maturity and commitment to regain a Test place. While the escapades of Shahid Afridi, Kamran Akmal and Imran Farhat are ever fascinating, the question for me is whether Wahab Riaz and Umar Akmal can show enough in the one-day format to challenge for a recall to the Pakistan Test team.
Kamran Abbasi is an editor, writer and broadcaster. He tweets here