'Pakistan don't come back very well'
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