October 11, 2013

'Pakistan don't come back very well'

Flat pitches, gorgeous net facilities, and two spinners in one Test - Paul Harris remembers South Africa's 2010 tour to the UAE

Paul Harris remembers not being able to go on a sand-dune safari during South Africa's 2010 tour of the UAE because his wife was pregnant at the time. He remembers them making a trip to some of the many shopping malls instead, an experience he confessed to enjoying immensely.

Harris recalls the facilities at the grounds in Abu Dhabi and Dubai as some of the best he has trained at in his career. His memories of the 20 to 25 nets in Dubai, each of which resembled a different ground in the world - Sydney, Cape Town and so on - is vivid, and he still gets excited talking about the ingenuity of the idea.

He remembers the sights, the sounds, the smells, even the practices, but strangely he does not remember much about the matches. "I suppose that series was a bit like watching paint dry," he said. "It was just very, very flat. Probably the flattest wickets, most unresponsive wickets I have ever seen."

Graeme Smith, Hashim Amla and Jacques Kallis scored centuries in the first Test, and Morne Morkel, the one bowler who relies on bounce, took a five-for, which was considered quite a feat. AB de Villiers broke the South African record for the highest individual score in the second Test, and for the first time that Harris remembers, South Africa played two spinners in a Test.

Harris and Johan Botha operating in tandem was probably the talking point of the tour, because it was so un-South African. In the final innings of the series, with Pakistan needing 354 to win, the spin twins took the only three wickets to fall.

"It was quite nice to bowl with another spinner for a change," Harris says, "but I wouldn't say we got anything out of the tracks." Despite that, he ended the series as South Africa's leading wicket-taker, a statistic that those who don't know how unresponsive the pitches were may think of as an illustration of their spin-friendliness.

"I mean, if Dale Steyn can't get wickets on a surface then its unlikely anyone else can." Steyn looked for reverse swing throughout the series, in what became desperation to get a positive result, but "there wasn't any of that either," as Harris remembers.

Frustration mounted as the tour wore on and the South African players realised the conditions were not the only catalyst facilitating mundane play.

"We could see Pakistan were happy to play for the draw. They didn't really push on," Harris says. Pakistan's run rate was over three only once in their four innings, and even when there was an opportunity to seize momentum, like when they had South Africa 33 for 3 in the second Test, they couldn't capitalise on it. At that stage, South Africa were not playing the ruthless brand of cricket they have displayed since becoming the No. 1 Test team, and it was easier for them to function at the level of their opposition.

"The thing about Pakistan is that when they are on top, they are a very tough side," says Harris. "But if they are behind and they see a gap, often they don't take it. They also don't come back very well."

That much was evident in Pakistan's most recent outing against Zimbabwe, when their over-reliance on the performance of senior batsmen and Saeed Ajmal was badly exposed. They are still smarting from a defeat in Harare that Dav Whatmore has referred to as "embarrassing", and Harris expects they will have a point to prove, which could make things difficult for South Africa.

He also believes conditions will be different from three years ago. Then, it was the first series Pakistan played in the UAE as their adopted home, and with no knowledge of how permanent their stay in the emirates would be, they may not have paid too much attention to conditions. As it became clearer they would play in the country for what now seems an indefinite period of time, they seem to have worked harder at trying to create conditions that can give them something of a home advantage. England experienced that early last year, when a combination of spin-friendly surfaces and what Graeme Smith said was a lack mental preparation saw them lose 3-0.

"They've definitely woken up to the fact that conditions need to suit them," Harris says. "I think they want to put teams out of their comfort zone when they play in the UAE and make it really difficult for them." The pitches in the UAE will present South Africa with a conundrum they have not faced before. "Which seamer do you drop?" Harris asks.

The three-pronged pace attack of Steyn, Vernon Philander and Morkel has formed the backbone of South Africa's team, and its difficult to imagine who they would be willing to go without. Instead, they seem intent on only using one specialist spinner, who Russell Domingo has indicated will be Robin Peterson, and asking JP Duminy to do more with the ball.

Harris is not entirely convinced of that tactic. "If it's really going to grip and turn, then I would play Imran [Tahir] as the only spinner," he said. 'I'd look at Robbie if they think it will only really turn come day four or five."

With some spinner-friendly conditions a guarantee, Harris expects a far more interesting series than in 2010. Although he was not willing to go as far as saying South Africa's desire was any less on the 2010 tour, he did say it was not among the fiercest battles he has been part of.

"The most intense series I've been part of have been against England and Australia, and perhaps India in India - that can get pretty hectic as well," he explained. "There are obviously some series that you will be more up for than others."

This time around, he thinks South Africa will more up for this contest because it could be their headline series of the summer. With the India tour still in limbo, the bumper season South Africa were due to have could end up being severely curbed, and the result from this Test series may be their biggest for some time.

A drawn series will result in South Africa not gaining any points on the Test rankings, so they will need to win to extend their lead over India. Harris believes that series will be the pick of the summer, and he will be the commentary box where he has migrated, having called time on his playing days. Even if they don't, he will be on screens during the Pakistan series, and he sounds like he is looking forward to it a lot more than the one in 2010.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Syed on October 15, 2013, 13:44 GMT

    Real test for SA bowlers 2nd day of first test : African bowlers clueless

  • Mashuq on October 13, 2013, 13:00 GMT

    Credit where credit is due. SA are #1 by a huge margin and will stay there until post-Kallis + Steyn: all time greats alongside Imran +2Ws. But like Oz not too long ago, their golden age will end and they will join the ranks of teams competing for #1. Swings and Roundabouts, folks.

  • Dummy4 on October 12, 2013, 1:45 GMT

    Steyn is no where close to Waqar and Wasim. I see a lot of South Africans calling him the greatest test bowler and all of that. Get your facts right, he plays most of his cricket on greenish bouncy wickets like SA, England, Australia and he gets a lot of help from those pitches. Whereas W&W played most of their cricket on subcontinent flat and dry pitches but they still ended up with a better strike rate and average then Steyn in ODi and parallel to him in test (remember he is on his peak years right now, we will see how he finishes).

    SA are certainly the best test side in the world right now but I think Pakistan have a good chance of beating them in the shorter version.

  • Rahul on October 11, 2013, 22:26 GMT

    The recent tracks in UAE are conducive to spin. The games played between UAE Vs Namibia and Afghanistan Vs Kenya are ample proof of that (For few who managed to follow them). This is a start of a cricket season in UAE. The pitches are freshly prepared and will assist spin in the tests. Also this being a home series away from home, Pak think tank will be naive to demand anything less then pitches conducive to spin as Ajmal, Rehman and Babar will have an advantage over Steyn, Philander and Morkel. This is clearly going to be a contest against Pakistans mercurial spinners versus SAF world class batting lineup. If Misbah can manage to put a respectable total on board with his comrades then dont be surprised to see Pak doing well against the SAFers. Also the weather in UAE is improving day by day and desert heat will not play a major role in the contest.

  • asad on October 11, 2013, 21:09 GMT

    @gmoturu1: You must be out of your mind to say Steyn is better then Wasim and Waqar that's like saying Sachin Tendulkar is better then Donald Bradman. Steyn is a great bowler and will be remembered as one of the great fast bowlers along with McGrath, Wasim, Waqar, Imran Khan etc. Definitely he is a good fast bowler but don't forget when comparing Wasim and Waqar to Steyn that they are from flat tracks of Pakistan and have always bowled successfully in the subcontinent where the pitches are made for spinners and batsmen. Steyn plays for SA which is one of the best places (if not then definitely better then subcontinent) for fast bowlers. But I do admit he is the best fast bowler who is currently playing but its a shame that he is already 30.

  • Jawwad on October 11, 2013, 17:39 GMT

    SA will be in for a surprise as Pakistan has this tendency of playing according to strength of it's opponents. SA has free flowing batsmen and prefer fast men bowling to them but with spin friendly tracks offered in series I reckon batsmen ought to lose patience and that would be the only opening for Pakistan to cash on.

  • Android on October 11, 2013, 16:48 GMT

    it willnot be easy for both teams. about 2010, it was 1st series in UAE, and after that match fixing issie, new captain & 1st time pcb organising it there. if you see wickets vs england, sri lanka series you willsee huge difference.

    about 2 nd test and not seizing momentum, if any 1 wants, can check cric info comentary and see how bad was umpiring without drs was in that innings.

    and tanvir ahmed also got a 5 for. against top bowlers.

    anyway, i think it will not be that easy for sa and pak. uae wickets do support fast bowling with new ball. in england series broad and anderson got good wickets. gul also got a 4 for. sa seamers are good and diciplined enough to take good wickets.

    for pak, there batsmen need to acore some runs. without it no matter if you play 3 spinners or 5 it will not work. sa batsmen are able to cope with spin. kalis, amla , ab & smith very good. while pak will look to 2 nd test in last series when little spin created problem for sa good series coming up

  • Girish on October 11, 2013, 16:29 GMT

    @Rafaye Farooqui. I agree Steyn is no Waseem or Waqar. He is in a league of his own. Look at his stats in India. He can get wickets if he has to. He is supported by Philander & Morkel who can provide accuracy & bounce. They have one of the best batting lineup for asian conditions. their only drawback is lack of quality spinner. If the pitch is atleast a bit responsive unlike the UAE tour of 2011 there is going to be a result in SA's favor.

  • Nasser on October 11, 2013, 15:42 GMT

    As a Pakistani supporter, I say that the SA side is not only the best test side but actually in a league of its own. The rest can fight it out to be number 2. Current test rankings (Top 10): 3 including top in batting, the top 2 in bowling, the top all-rounder. They are the best in EACH aspect of batting, bowling, and fielding. Spin, although not a strength is still very much adequate, as long as they do not play Imran Tahir who leaks runs.

    Pakistan will struggle to get to number 4 and stay there. Pray that Amjad has not really lost his bite after a very ordinary series in SA as the great Pak bowling attack was not effective there (part of the reason for our 0-3 drubbing). Also, Pakistan has lost the knack of taking advantage of a rare good position which happened twice in SA. Pakistan's batting is brittle, even on flat pitches, but in the UAE they should bat better, now that the curse of Hafeez has gone. A lot depends on our bowlers and fielding, which recently has shown improvement

  • Dummy4 on October 11, 2013, 13:09 GMT

    steyn is not waqar younis or waseem akram or shoaibakhter who can perform under heat on flat tracks , i never saw him reverse the ball convincingly( he is a good bowler on bouncy pitches , here he can only contain runs ).. 0-0 was when we played u guys last time , then came the English team who was the then number one ranked team ...clearly they were not able to pick spin , AB and AMLA can play , but i tell you one thing , if saeed gets his tail up , i dont see SA players scoring runs ..1-0 in favour of pakistan and for sure it will happen like dat , and if rehman can pick up some momentum like he did in the third test match against England ... it will be curtains for SA ...however we still have to bat ,which is the only worry but on UAE tracks , i trust our batsmen ...

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