Pakistan v South Africa, 2nd Test, Dubai October 22, 2013

South Africa must recall old lessons

It was finding a way to win in the subcontinent that was a key part to South Africa's rise to No. 1 in the world and now they need to recall some old lessons

Ten years ago yesterday, South Africa lost a Test match in Lahore. A week later they had been defeated in the series, after a drawn game in Faisalabad. They only went back to Pakistan once after that, four years later. Then, they won.

Graeme Smith, who was in his 16th Test, "does not remember much" about the 2003 defeat except that it was a "big turning point in our path as a Test team." That series was not the start of South Africa's remarkable unbeaten run on the road - that only started after they lost to Sri Lanka in 2006 - but it was a tour in which they discovered some what it would take to compete on the subcontinent.

"Any time you lose you learn lessons," Smith remembered. "We thought about a lot of things after that, things like what kind of cricketers could have made more of an impact. Those losses helped us with the successes we had away from home afterwards."

The most noticeable difference between the personnel South Africa employed for the two series is the type of spinner they used. In the first, it was Paul Adams, who was their leading wicket-taker despite the defeat. In the second, it was Paul Harris, who was also the chief destroyer in victory.

The composition and form of the Pakistan team they faced on both occasions was different but it's still worth noting that while Adams went for 3.38 runs to the over, Harris conceded only 1.96. Harris' job was primarily a holding one and if conditions and circumstances conspired for it to be more than that, he happily accepted.

If South Africa believe in learning from the past, that will tell them something. In Abu Dhabi, only Morne Morkel succeeded in keeping an end quiet for extended periods of time while the person who was supposed to do it, Robin Peterson, was the most expensive and least effective.

South Africa seem intent on not replacing Peterson but if they retain him, they need to issue clear instructions that he should concentrate on drying up runs. Smith said Imran Tahir's "attacking ability will come into consideration," especially if Dale Steyn is ruled out, which suggests that if he is used he may operate alongside, rather than in place of Peterson.

Whatever combination they go with, South Africa need a designated donkey bowler if they want to "find a way to make a greater impact with the ball at different times," as Smith said. He recognised that was what Pakistan did in Abu Dhabi. "Pakistan's spinners didn't dominate but they played crucial roles. They held the game and we weren't able to break free so they were always ahead of the game," he said.

If South Africa can find someone to do that, it will the first step towards squaring the series. The next, and perhaps more important, will be in the batting line-up.

When South Africa lost to Pakistan in 2003, they were bowled out for 320 and 241 in the match they were defeated in. When they won four years later, their first innings score was exactly 450. It does not even need revisiting that history to know that big totals set up wins and Smith knows that. He previously said South Africa need to look at posting scores of "above 400," in the UAE and today reiterated that. "We need to be posting more solid totals," he said. "We need to Pakistan work harder for the things that they get in this Test match."

While South Africa have accepted they were outplayed in the first Test, they also believe they allowed Pakistan to dominate. They have not identified a clear reason for their lack of fight but Smith expects the bulldog in them to be back for the must-win encounter. "We lacked a little bit of an edge," he admitted.

Smith is "looking forward" to South Africa regaining some of their razor-sharpness but conceded it will take immense character from a side that will be missing one of its heartbeats. Hashim Amla will sit out this Test as he waits for his second child to be born and Steyn could also be ruled out, depending on the severity of his hamstring tightness.

"It's a challenge to be without your best players," Smith said. "When you play sport you have injuries and obstacles that come your way and that's why you need to have a squad of players that can perform." South Africa's replacements have included heroics from JP Duminy - in Australia in 2008 - and Faf du Plessis - also in that country last year. Whether they have the depth to do it again will be seen over the next five days.

Smith thinks they do. "There is still confidence in our ability. We know we have won all around the world and we know we can win in different conditions." Pakistan 2007 is an example. Then, it was an indication they were on the up. Last year they reached the top and this is the series that was thought to be their biggest obstacle to staying there. Should South Africa overcome the hurdle, it will prove the lessons they were taught in the past have been learned.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent