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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Huban on January 27, 2013, 20:08 GMT

    well i think this pak line up is quite capable of doing any upset in SA. only they need is believe in themselves Misbah is quite good as captain only thing he needs to do is attack he goes in defensive mind set and that's where the problem starts but still he is good enough that under his captaincy pak never lost a test series. and as far as pak team is concern in my opinion nasir jamshaid and asad shaiq should play i don't think there's any place of azhar ali and bowling dept is already full hope we gonna have some quality cricket at the end of all this , best of luck team pak

  • Dummy4 on January 26, 2013, 19:55 GMT

    South Africa will thrash Pakistan 3-0. Pakistan are just overrated but hopefully the South Africans will show where this old team belongs :D

  • aziz on January 25, 2013, 21:48 GMT

    Pakistan needs a dependable middle oredr batsman. Azhar has been tried and tested and he is basically an average player on U.A.E. pictches. He cannot play the fast and swintging ball. All will depend on the form of Younus Khan. Fawd Alam is the best middle order batsman and a dependable player under crises. He has been sidelined for too long. His average in test and ODI is better then any current test middle order batsman other then Younus Khan.

  • atlas on January 25, 2013, 19:09 GMT

    pakistan need to play haris sohail he is in his form of life.also i dont think playing azhar make any good for pakistan he had the worst Fc avg 36.

  • Wahab on January 25, 2013, 18:12 GMT

    Nice Article! .. i really want to add a very little thing in it. After 2009 there was no international cricket in Pakistan, Country is facing major crises in various areas including Sports Politics. In such time if your players play well then it really puts soft image of the country. I really admire Pakistani Cricketers for this thing , they are doing good !!! I dont ask them to win everything but to play like if they have already won.

  • Dummy4 on January 25, 2013, 11:14 GMT

    The author nailed it.Its just a question of how Pakistani batsmen handle SA bowling,Vernon philanderer especially.I personally believe Pakistan have a slight upper hand inspite of their woeful batting line up.Their bowling arsenal is so diverse.Mohammed Irfan,Junaid khan ,saeed Ajmal are an absolute delight and if England can go down 3-0 against them in a test series on moderately responsive pitches in UAE(remember England got routed for 70 odd runs in a session chasing 140) ,Pakistan has every right to believe they can make it 3-0 here too.This isnt an exaggeration for we all know that SA are not that good in their home conditions.India and Srilanka have managed to win a test here with less than impressive bowling attacks.AMLA,KALLIS,SMITH and DEVILLIERS are the key and while this quartet can be credited with playing Fast bowlers well,am not sure how good they will be aginst Saeed Ajmal or Abdur rehman for its been sometime since SA played quality spin.Looking forward to this series.

  • Yasir on January 25, 2013, 10:10 GMT

    Pak started well in the tour match..I hope they continue like that.Glad to see that Nasir Jamshed is being tested & Pak going with 3 Pacers

  • Saleem on January 25, 2013, 9:09 GMT

    In their own backyard, top draw South Africa will be tough nut to crack but they are not " bomb-proof". New look Pakistani attack has the fire power/variety to dismantle any batting line up on either seaming, bouncing/flat and/or spinning tracks. Pakistan's batting is the weak link and ability of Pakistani batsmen to deal with rising and swinging balls will have a major impact on outcome. On song Pakistan will present a stern test and instead of "Pakistan's litmus test" the series may turn out be a "ACID TEST" for Proteas. Go Paki Go !

  • Cricket on January 25, 2013, 8:54 GMT

    In the tour practice match agaist SAF invitation XI Pakistan have opened thier batting with Hafeez & Jamshed. This could be an indication of the team in the 1st Test. So it looks like the competition for the 6th batsman is between Shafiq & Taufeeq.

  • Cricket on January 25, 2013, 8:47 GMT

    @ shahzadparacha :

    I dont expect SA to prepare real green tops against this Pakistani Pace attack. Alteast not in the first match. If they do, they will be playing with a double edged sword. Because Pakistan's pace attack is equally devastating and has more variety. Also their spin department is blessed with Ajmal & Hafeez. With Abdur Rehman & Adil on the reserves, SA will think hard before giving them green tops. If Mohammed Amir clicks he will be a real terror on these pitches, add to that the guil of Junaid & support of Gul's experience & accuracy, though I have found Gul to be dissapointing in the last 2 years or so.