South Africa target uncertain top order
Mohammad Hafeez's omission from the Pakistan Test squad has given South Africa a clear indication of where to draw the battle lines for the two-match series. With Khurram Manzoor set to occupy one opening spot, and the other yet to be decided but likely to be filled with a less experienced batsman than Hafeez, South Africa's seamers are targeting Pakistan's fragility at the top.
"Our pace attack against their opening batters will be important to set up the series for us," South Africa's coach Russell Domingo said ahead of the first training session in Dubai. "Hafeez's form has been a bit of a concern for them for a period of time. But he is a quality bowler and a quality batsmen and we are not displeased that he is unlikely to play a part."
Despite conditions expected to suit spinners more than quicks, Domingo said the fast men will be tasked with putting Pakistan under pressure from the get-go, by exploiting what appears to be their most obvious weakness. Domingo said Test achievements were built on strong first-wicket stands and if South Africa can prevent Pakistan from establishing one, it will set them up in pushing for victory.
"If you look at South Africa's Test cricket, it has been successful because of the way the openers have gone about their business," Domingo said. "Its the most important partnership in any format. If you think of great Test sides, like Australia had Hayden and Langer, that's the kind of thing you need."
Domingo also played down talk of raging turners, saying he was ready should the groundstaff prepare something different. "We've been involved in series where we want a certain type of wicket and we don't get it, so it's difficult to pre-empt," he said. The practice pitch at the Sharjah Cricket Ground told a different story. Imran Tahir and JP Duminy spent a significant amount of time bowling and both found substantial turn.
And Pakistan certainly seem to be expecting spin. Without Hafeez to add to the bowling options, they have Zulfiqar Babar, who will be hopeful of a first Test cap, and who could be their surprise package. "We'll need to have an in depth look at him and do some analysis," Domingo said. "He has obviously got a lot of experience but we need to sit down and do our homework."
So far South Africa have only had time to reacquaint themselves with each other, after not playing as a Test outfit since March. On arrival in Sharjah, they held a bonding session of sorts at an establishment where they watched the country's national rugby team, the Springboks, lose to New Zealand's All Blacks on Saturday afternoon.
The rest of the day was devoted to enjoying some quiet and Domingo hoped it would help in acclimatising, especially to the heat. "When you get here to start with the heat is always stifling but after four or five days, you tend to get used to it."
Work, as is customary in this part of the world, began on Sunday morning when they held their first team meeting. "We had a good chat and emphasised the important elements that made this Test side so successful and how we want to try and continue to do well," Domingo said.
They will have two days of training - today and tomorrow - before a three-day warm-up game against Pakistan A. Domingo said he would have preferred another practice outing but is satisfied that the cricket some of the squad has played in the last few months will ensure they are match-ready. "One warm-up game is not ideal. But its better than nothing," he said. "Quite a lot of the guys have been playing cricket in Champions League, Hashim [Amla] was playing county cricket and some preparing with their franchises."
The last arrival from the CLT20 flew in today. Faf du Plessis was with the Chennai Super Kings and left India on Sunday morning. He traveled straight to the ground to join the practice. Thami Tsolekile, the reserve wicketkeeper, will arrive later in the week. He is on compassionate leave following the death of his mother-in-law.
South Africa will look to play 13 in their practice match to ensure everybody has a "bit of a go," and have the opportunity to size up some of the players who could form part of the opposition. Given that Pakistan are likely to pick their other opener from the cricketers who do duty in the warm-up match, with Ahmed Shehzad the leading candidate, it will also give South Africa's quicks the chance to make a first impression on whoever partners Manzoor at the top.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent