South Africa look beyond Ajmal
Saeed Ajmal, now widely accepted as the best Test spinner around, was dropped three years ago for the second Test against South Africa in the UAE. After bowling the second most number of overs in the first match and conceding the second most number of runs, Ajmal was benched for the following fixture.
Why, you may wonder, wasn't the person who worked a little less or did a little worse overlooked? Perhaps because it was Ajmal who was expected to give Pakistan an advantage and when he did not, he had to be sacrificed for team balance. Pakistan included another quick for the second Test and relied on Abdur Rehman to be the sole specialist spinner with Mohammad Hafeez backing him up.
For Pakistan it was a tactical decision. For South Africa, it was a massive compliment. "We've had good success against Ajmal in the past and he was even left out of a few matches," Graeme Smith recalled.
Ajmal was also left out of two of the five ODIs, so almost every member of the South African squad who has spoken about the upcoming series has remembered the Ajmal selection.
To them, it seems to be proof that they are not as vulnerable against Pakistan's biggest strength - spin - as most. "We get a bit of a bad rap around playing spin," Smith said. "Even Gary said with his experiences with India, that we are one of the best at playing spin."
The Cullinan-Warne days are long behind South Africa and their record against the most cunning tweakers is impressive. Ajmal has 14 wickets against them in four Tests, at an average of 40.14, significantly higher than his overall average - 26.78. Graeme Swann has 25 wickets against South Africa from six Tests at 38.68 compared to 28.55 over his career.
The perception still remains that South Africans are poor players of spin and in their recent limited-overs series in Sri Lanka, some of the younger batsmen perpetuated that, but their Test team has no such problems. Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers are among the best players of slower bowling in the current game and Misbah-ul-Haq, for one, knows it.
"Saeed will have to be at his best," Misbah admitted. "The South Africans have faced him before and they handled him well. When other teams, like England and Australia came here, they had not faced him that much."
Ajmal will not have the element of newness against South Africa but is still expected to be a major factor in this series - just consider the ten wickets he took in the match in Cape Town earlier in the year on a surface which Smith joked South Africa had made "a spinning wicket for Pakistan". Ajmal could not stop Pakistan from being whitewashed but he fired enough of a warning to make sure South Africa know what to expect come the UAE.
Smith feels his men have prepared adequately for Ajmal and are now applying their minds to the rest of the Pakistan attack. The other spinners in the squad are Abdur Rehman and Zulfiqur Babar and the latter could be Pakistan's secret weapon.
Babar is uncapped but has over a decade of experience in the first-class set-up and he is the man South Africa are doing some homework on. "He is a bit more of an unknown factor. We've got a little bit of footage on him and some of our guys have seen him bowl," Smith said. "Until you've actually played a guy there's always an unknown factor."
And then there is the rest of the attack to consider. With Smith expecting swing and seam in the morning session, because of the humidity, Junaid Khan will be a threat. Misbah also indicated a fully-fit and firing Mohammad Irfan could be important to Pakistan's chances. "After the Zimbabwe series, he went to the academy, worked on his fitness, bowled long spells there, did a lot of training and even lost his weight," he said. "He is in really good shape and that's a good sign for us."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent