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

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