South Africa aim to rediscover their Test rhythm
"Don't mess it up."
That's what Graeme Smith thinks he is going to say when his team step across the boundary on Monday morning. Those four words contain no mystery. They are a simple, to the point instruction, which explains how the world's top-ranked Test team plans to approach their series against Pakistan.
On the surface, it seems a safety-first stance. South Africa have not played Test cricket since the last week in February and have not been away from home in whites for 11 months. They've realised they will need a bit of time to find their feet, adjust to foreign conditions and get back into what they've termed a "pattern of play".
But they also understand they can't take too long to get back into the groove. There is a lot at stake in this series - not least of which being that it could become the most important Test cricket South Africa is involved in in 2013 because the India tour remains in limbo.
Maintaining a sizeable gap at the top of the Test rankings is dependent on how South Africa play in the UAE. Anything less than a clean sweep will send South Africa backwards, because of the weighting system which highlights the difference between the two sides.
As the No. 1 outfit, South Africa are expected to beat Pakistan, who sit at No. 6. So if they draw, they drop points and if they are defeated, they drop even more points. There's a good chance these intricacies don't matter at the moment, even with the Test championship launched and the race to the final four in 2017 having begun (who is really aware of that at this early stage anyway?), but they may serve as a small incentive and could mean South Africa puts the onus on themselves to play aggressive cricket.
Conditions are not expected to suit a fast-moving game, especially in Abu Dhabi. Smith said the pitch looked "pretty similar" to the one South Africa played on in 2010. That was the first Test the ground hosted and there was only one innings in which a team was bowled out. The total number of runs scored over the five days was 1374, an average 274.8 a day.
The other two matches there yielded one draw between Pakistan and Sri Lanka and a victory for Pakistan over England. The latter was the only fixture which saw a team bowled out in an innings for under 100 - England were dismissed for 72. Twice, teams have bowled out for less than 200 on the surface and five of the 12 innings played there have not had all 10 wickets fall.
What seems obvious is that recent conditions have been ore tailored to suit Pakistan's spin attack, as they were for the England match, but indications are that it will not be quite so slanted this time. Misbah-ul-Haq praised South Africa's ability against spin and Pakistan have acknowledged trying to turn their opposition inside out will be more challenging than it was against England. That can only mean more placid pitches on which South Africa will have to do a lot more to force a positive result - because it will be up to them and not Pakistan, who will be content with sharing spoils - to do so.
Smith has acknowledged the burden lies with South Africa. "The mindset has to be to take the game forward but at the same time, we have to lay platforms and give ourselves a base to work off," he said. "We haven't played together for six months and it might take us time to get to the standards where we were before. Our goal is to put Pakistan under pressure. Recently, we've been able to handle pressure well and exert pressure on opposition."
Since becoming No. 1 last August, South Africa have succeeded in injecting a more ruthless streak into their game. It was evident in Perth, against Australia, when Smith and Hashim Amla scored at around seven runs to the over for a session to take the game beyond Michael Clarke's men. None of their home Tests last summer, which included two against New Zealand and three against Pakistan, went to five days and they bowled both teams out for under 50 on one occasion.
They've proved they have the game-breakers to change a match in a session, be it with bat or ball, but whether those players will be able to do that in conditions which may not assist them remains the biggest challenge. Whether they will be able to do that against an opposition whose main aim could also well be not to mess it up, will present a different stumbling block.
Pakistan are banking on "home advantage" to prove they are far worthier than being sixth out of ten in the rankings. They see South Africa as similar to the way they saw England - a No. 1 team whose confidence they could send off track, if not derail it entirely. "Whenever you are facing a top side in the world, it motivation for you," Misbah said. "All the players want to prove themselves. We've got a chance here so we should go out and play good cricket."
Pakistan's year could also be defined by this series, although they have the certainty of three matches against Sri Lanka still to come. After losing to South Africa, they drew a series against Zimbabwe and their loss Harare led to severe reputational damage. The best way to recover from that will be to give South Africa a hard time, a scare and even a defeat.
Unlike other teams who languish in the lower half of the Test rankings, few doubt Pakistan can actually achieve that. Known as a group of mercurial mavericks who turn their performances on and off at will, they have been labelled "unpredictable" in the same way South Africa are called "chokers" - even if it does not apply, people still use the term.
Since Misbah took over the captaincy, ahead of the series in 2010 in the aftermath of the spot-fixing scandal, they have become a more consistent side than before. In 21 Tests, they've won 10, lost six and drawn five, a winning percentage of 47.62. Overall, their success rate is 30.93%.
They still cannot be described as formulaic but teams do know what to expect from Pakistan: uncertainty in the top-order, two pillars of strength - Younis Khan and Misbah - in the middle, seam bowlers with varying and complementary skills, a spin threat and a feisty fight. It will be up to South Africa to show if and how they can handle that.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent