January 24, 2013

Pakistan's litmus test

The team has never won a series in South Africa, but this set of players has good reason to believe that they can reverse the trend

If there is an emotion combining white-knuckle fear and giddy anticipation in equal parts, then that is what Pakistan supporters are feeling as the Test series in South Africa approaches. The excitement is understandable: Pakistan have increasingly looked a confident and balanced Test side over the last couple of years. With copious raw talent and a fine blend of experience and youth, they seem entirely capable of causing an upset.

The apprehension, too, is justified: South Africa have home advantage, enormous ability, winning momentum, and that sharp edge that comes from being the world's top-ranked side. This is easily Pakistan's toughest challenge yet in what has been a period of resurgence for them following the 2010 spot-fixing mess.

Tours to South Africa may not be embedded in the Pakistani psyche with the same depth and impact as trips to England, Australia, or India, but this one already has a different and dominant feel to it. From Pakistan's last series there, only four South Africans (Graeme Smith, Hashim Amla, Jacques Kallis, and AB de Villiers) and three Pakistanis (Mohammad Hafeez, Younis Khan and Faisal Iqbal) survive. This time around, Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander will open the bowling for South Africa, and their batting order will include the impressive newcomer Faf du Plessis in addition to the intimidating quartet of Smith, Amla, Kallis and de Villiers. If you wanted to test your cricketing mettle, you couldn't ask for a more comprehensive, probing and public examination.

Misbah-ul-Haq has termed it a litmus test for Pakistan. That's an accurate metaphor, because there will be no ambiguity about the result. Man for man, South Africa are the superior side, which means even a drawn series will effectively be a win for Pakistan. On the other hand, a series defeat will mean Pakistan will still be short of being counted among the upper tier of Test nations.

The history of past tours is not encouraging. South Africa is one of three remaining territories (Australia and West Indies are the others) where Pakistan have yet to win a Test series. In nine Tests spread over four tours beginning in 1995, there have been only two Pakistan wins and six defeats. This win-loss ratio of 0.33 is Pakistan's second-worst away from home; only their record in Australia (four wins and 21 losses; win-loss ratio 0.19) is worse.

The lesson of those two victories - Durban 1998 and Port Elizabeth 2007 - is that seam and spin working in tandem can be effective in South Africa. In Durban, Shoaib Akhtar induced a South African collapse in the first innings and Mushtaq Ahmed took a match-clinching six-for with his legspin in the second. In Port Elizabeth, Mohammad Asif's seam bowling was strongly complemented by the wristspin of Danish Kaneria.

None of the bowlers in the current squad have toured South Africa before for a bilateral series, but they have done enough in international cricket to show they have the teeth to bowl out any opposition twice. Umar Gul has accuracy and experience, Junaid Khan has speed with bilateral movement, and Mohammad Irfan has an imposing frame and releases the ball from what the batsman perceives to be above sightscreen height. Irfan's durability for five-day cricket is something of an unknown quantity, but a man who can lift length balls chest-high on placid Asian pitches definitely deserves a chance on the bouncier turf of South Africa. All three seamers will be under pressure for their place, because the 19-year-old rookie Ehsan Adil is nipping at their heels.

Eventually it may all come down to Saeed Ajmal. He is the only Pakistan player who would be an automatic selection in the South African team, which makes him something of a trump card. Ajmal's record against South Africa may not be particularly menacing, but over the last two years - his best period in the game - he has met them only once (in a T20I).

His great asset, apart from mastery of the fundamentals, is increasingly skilful variation, delivered with cunning and guile. Especially in the second innings, he has the potential to play havoc with the South African line-up. Whenever conditions are conducive to spin, Ajmal will have quality support from Hafeez's tight offspin at the other end. Abdur Rehman is another excellent spinner in the squad, but with Pakistan expected to play six batsmen and three seamers, it is hard to see him in the final XI.

Perhaps the most reassuring aspect of this Pakistan campaign is that it exudes a sense of stability that makes a sharp contrast with its predecessors. Misbah knows how to manage and motivate, and enjoys a thinking collaboration with vice-captain Hafeez

The chink in Pakistan's armour is their batting, which is notorious for coming undone against bounce and sideways movement. Pakistan's six defeats in South Africa confirm this only too well, with an average innings total of 198, and only one member of the current squad having scored a century - Taufeeq Umar, who made 135 in a losing cause in Cape Town in 2003. Bizarrely, Taufeeq wasn't picked for the subsequent tour in 2007, but he has since resurrected his career and settled into the opener's slot again.

The rest of the batting also more or less selects itself, with Hafeez opening alongside Taufeeq, followed by Azhar Ali, Younis, and Misbah. Beyond this there is room for only one additional recognised batsman, which means either Nasir Jamshed or Asad Shafiq will be sitting out. Faisal Iqbal and Haris Sohail are two other batsmen in the squad, but unless they play the warm-up game in East London and do something spectacular, it is hard to see them being in serious contention.

Conspicuous by their absence are the Akmal brothers, Umar, Kamran, and Adnan. Umar has plainly lost the plot somewhere; his international batting average continues to slip, and is currently languishing in the mid-30s after having been about ten runs higher around two years ago. Kamran was a contender for the wicketkeeping role but was devalued by abysmal batting failures in India.

Word is that Misbah was keen on including at least Adnan in the side, but Sarfraz Ahmed outperformed him in the domestic season with stark numbers that could not be ignored. The Akmals have not endeared themselves to Pakistan's fan base in recent times, and most Pakistan supporters have interpreted their collective absence as a positive development.

Perhaps the most reassuring aspect of this Pakistan campaign is that it exudes a sense of stability that makes a sharp contrast with its predecessors. Misbah's captaincy has now extended to an uninterrupted two and a half years, over which he has accumulated a steady record of success. He knows how to manage and motivate, and enjoys a thinking collaboration with the vice-captain, Hafeez. Around this time last year, he led his men against another top-ranked Test side, and that didn't turn out so badly. Under Misbah's watch, the team has also kept clear of the kind of damaging scandals that had hobbled them in 2010 and earlier. The resulting equilibrium - historically rare in Pakistan sides - is an ideal tonic for players to strive towards their best.

Although Pakistan's win-loss ratio at South African venues is disappointing, there is some consolation in the fact that in comparison with other teams it turns out to be third-best. Only Australia and England have done better, and this hierarchy persists even if you exclude the pre-apartheid era. All other teams have a worse win-loss ratio in South Africa than Pakistan. This may not be a ringing endorsement, but combined with Pakistan's talent and arc of revival, it does indicate that they are as good a bet as any to record an inaugural series win in South Africa.

Saad Shafqat is a writer based in Karachi