Pakistan v South African, Abu Dhabi, 2nd day October 15, 2013

South Africa err in length and selection

The over-reliance on short-pitched bowling and lack of a penetrative spinner forced South Africa to endure their toughest day in the field in 11 months

On pitches that do not facilitate bounce, like the one at Sheikh Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi, fast bowlers need to be patient and disciplined. Their reserves of guts and imagination will be tested and the levels of intensity and mental focus needed are higher than normal. That's what South Africa's bowling coach Allan Donald said was required of his attack before the series began. However, with Pakistan on 263 for 3, ahead by 14 going into the third day, the challenge has seemingly proved more than what the bowlers could handle.

South Africa endured their toughest day in the field in 11 months, since Brisbane 2012. On day four at the Gabba, they had conceded 376 runs for one wicket. It wasn't as bad this time but the same issues remained: an over-reliance on short-pitched bowling and the lack of an attacking spinner.

The problem with length can be fixed through technical adjustments, which Donald seemed certain his charges would make in time for the first Test. He said he had impressed on them that they could not simply, "turn up, bowl back of a length and expect to take wickets." That is the default South African way of doing things as the coach Russell Domingo admitted, but Donald will have to strategise a plan B for pitches that do not have much in the way of bounce.

Donald was looking for a slightly fuller length, a line that did not stray down leg side and early breakthroughs created by making batsmen play as much as possible in the first 20 overs. South Africa's four quicks allowed Pakistan to leave more than six overs' worth of deliveries, 37 to be exact, in the first 19 overs.

Some of those deliveries were too far outside off stump to tempt Shan Masood and Khurram Manzoor, but the majority of them allowed the pair to duck underneath or watch them pass tamely over the stumps. There were 27 short balls in the first 114 deliveries. The surface did not suit the ploy and the openers, particularly Manzoor, displayed solid defensive ability on the back foot. As Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander discovered, the better plan was to bowl fuller and try to induce an edge. Steyn got it right against Masood but the chance he created was fluffed in the slips.

Where the quicks, barring Steyn, did well upfront was in keeping the run-rate down. Morne Morkel and Philander were miserly and built pressure but could not sustain it because of their continued relapse into old habits. Domingo, however, did not regard the approach as a mistake even though it yielded so little. "Every time we play subcontinent sides, we always look to target them with short-pitched bowling and it's definitely something we will continue doing," he said.

If that is the case, South Africa may only end up enabling Pakistan's batsmen, who showed greater intent than they have done recently. Against Zimbabwe, albeit in completely different conditions and against a different kind of attack, they rarely scored at more than three runs an over. Here, that was their regular pace - a refreshing change from the mindset of survival they have had to employ in recent matches.

Their scoring increased further against the slower bowlers. Robin Peterson was hardly threatening and expensive. For Pakistan, facing him was like asking a university graduate to write a high-school essay. They handled his flight with ease and brought South Africa's selection policy into question, because they did have another option in legspinner Imran Tahir.

Peterson was picked on protocol and sentiment. He has been South Africa's lead spinner since late 2012 and displacing him was considered unfair, especially because he had not done much wrong. That policy worked when all South Africa's spinner had to do was play a bits-and-pieces role in the shadow of the quicks, and it even helped lengthen their batting line-up.

On a pitch that will suit spin, however, there is no legitimate excuse for not playing the person who can turn the ball most. Tahir is not the best spinner in the world and the practice match was evidence of that. His assortment of full tosses and needless variations bled runs in his first spell in Sharjah, but he caused problems once he got it together. In the circumstances, South Africa should have used him in Abu Dhabi.

Domingo disagreed, and said Peterson had good enough performances over the last year to bounce back. "I am sure he will be the first to admit he didn't bowl as well as he could have. We know he will get better."

Peterson's performance will lead to deeper questions about the development of the available spin talent in South Africa - with Warriors' offspinner Simon Harmer being bandied as a possibility for the future - but right now the situation does not merit such severe introspection.

All that should be questioned is why South Africa did not use their best resource and whether they made the right decision in expecting JP Duminy to be the second spinner. Duminy has potential and was the better of the two slow bowlers today.

This is not the first time they picked an XI not best suited to the conditions either. That day in Brisbane, South Africa were so convinced by the pre-match hype of a green top that they played four seamers and relied on Duminy to do the work of a spinner. The pitch was one of the flattest in recent memory, and Duminy was injured before he could play any part in the match, which was drawn after a day was lost to rain.

There's unlikely to be a similar reprieve in this Test so South Africa will have to rescue themselves, and before they can consider doing that with the bat, they have to rectify their shortcomings with the ball.

"Having not played for a lengthy period of time, it always takes some time to get going," Domingo said. "You have to go back and remind yourself why this side is No.1 in the world and how they got there." They can start by remembering their rise up the rankings came through solid performances away from home, which were achieved by adapting to conditions quickly. They will need to do the same here.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on October 16, 2013, 6:38 GMT

    Bring In Simon Harmer in place of Robin peterson.& replace alviro petersen with dean elgar or Rilee Rossouw.

  • Tahir on October 16, 2013, 6:17 GMT

    SA pacers were right on target it was great batting display by pak openers that made them look ordinary. Secondly, SA dont have spinners to trouble pak which was the major factor. Pakistan pacers were of appropriate quality but it was spin department that troubled the SA most.

  • Andre on October 16, 2013, 6:12 GMT

    "Domingo, however, did not regard the approach as a mistake even though it yielded so little. "Every time we play subcontinent sides, we always look to target them with short-pitched bowling and it's definitely something we will continue doing," he said."

    That alone tells me that we need a new coach. Your opposition is 263/3 after you scored 249. How can you keep on doing something which is not working and expect to recover from a really bad position?

  • Android on October 16, 2013, 5:33 GMT

    Great come back is going to happen man

  • Subramani on October 16, 2013, 5:06 GMT

    Omarrz,incidentally,South Africa rose to no 1 in the ICC rankings after they beat England in England. Secondly, South Africa is the only side that has played better in away series than at home if you have a look at their performances since their return to International cricket in 1992. In fact, even in Australia in 2012,they had a tough time in the first two Tests because the wickets at Brisbane and Adelaide were totally different to what they traditionally have been. South Africa looked like losing the second Test but Du Plessis saved the game for them. Then at Perth in the 3rd Test, normal services were restored and Australia got thrashed as they had been expected to be all series long. South Africa is better away than at home. In fact,India beat South Africa in 2010 in the second Test and then were close to winning the third before rain intervened. South Africa does much better away. Pakistan should be very happy with their performance so far in this Test and could win it.

  • David on October 16, 2013, 5:01 GMT

    @ Bonehead_maz says "Steyn and Philander are fair weather sailors, and Morne … isn't the sharpest tack in the box."

    Yea we know Aus caught them off guard with roads at the Gabba & Adelaide, but at Perth they murdered the Aus batting, and won the series. Eng prepared dead tracks, & also lost. Swann was murdered, Anderson too.

    So many are quick to bash SA based on a day or 2 of play. Eng 2012, test 1, day 1 the Eng press wrote off the SA attack as useless, & declared a series victory. Next day the SA attack rolled them, & the SA batsmen flayed them. Eng managed to take just 2 wickets in the test.

    Adelaide day 4 the Aus press pronounced the test won. A huge victory for Aus. Yeah right. Aus won precisely nothing. SA took the series with a big win.

    With 3 more days to go, don't get excited yet. SA take time to get used to conditions. With the new ball late today they suddenly hit their stride for the last 4 overs. The morning session will be a different game. Lots of surprises to come

  • Android on October 16, 2013, 4:55 GMT

    Good to see Pak on top after 2 days... today's game will decide the direction of game... still Pak is not having game properly until Pak got lead above 150.......

  • Saurabh on October 16, 2013, 4:19 GMT

    Well the Proteas bowled wrong length and the wrong line too on numerous occasions(you don't bowl straight to batsmen from the subcontinent,not unless there's considerable reverse swing on offer).On a pitch that's wonderful for batting there's little margin fro error.Steyn and company need to adjust to the track and pitch the ball up to the batters and play on batsman's patience.Having said that,I believe it's the South African batting lineup that deserves a lot more flak than their bowling.To be shot out for a middling 250 in the first innings on a docile track-5 wickets went the way of spinners when the track wasn't doing anything-is asking for trouble.

  • Dummy4 on October 16, 2013, 0:39 GMT

    Just to put everything into context SA have lost 1 test series in the last 6-7 years so a bad couple of days is not something to really panick about, especially after such a long lay off! All Kudo's to the Pakistan team for really putting up some fight and getting themselves into a strong position now they just have to not bottle it.

    @ harishk19812007 bit harsh to judge Steyn on one day's cricket?

  • Omarr on October 15, 2013, 23:55 GMT

    SA is number 1 not because of Steyn or Amla. They are number 1 because they have played most of their games in their own backyard or in England and Australia.Thanks to Pakistan who helped them gain this no. 1 ranking by displacing England last year from this position. Now, Pak will make sure England get their ranking back by knocking out this current no. 1 side. Look at VP, this is his first match in Asia and yet he was nominated for the Cricketer of the year award last year (consider this: he doesn't even play limited overs cricket for SA).

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