South Africa v Pakistan, 1st Test, Centurion Park January 10, 2007

Prepare for battle of the quicks

Mohammad Asif will be one of most naturally gifted pacemen on show © AFP
Not so often do you get the opportunity these days to really savour the prospect of a series where pace bowling, in all its glory, will come to the fore. But over the next few weeks, as Pakistan takes on South Africa, you can hark back to the long-held (sometimes even true) maxim that the batsmen, they will save a game, but the bowlers, they will win them.

Every fast bowling stereotype you can think of will be on view over the next three Tests: express pace (Shoaib Akhtar), precociously gifted (Mohammad Asif), awkward bounce (Umar Gul), canny (Shahid Nazir), all-action hustle, bustle (Makhaya Ntini), mouthy (Andre Nel) and the category formerly known as metronomic but now, in the wake of his retirement, rechristened McGrathonomic (Shaun Pollock). And that still leaves room for Dale Steyn, Rana Naved-ul-Hasan, Morne Morkel and even Mohammad Sami to appear at some point during the series. Take away the 2005 Ashes and fast bowling hasn't been this fashionable - or abundant - since the eighties.

But precisely because they are in such hazardous occupations, it is unlikely that we will get to see them all, at Centurion Park at any rate. Gul, Pakistan's best fast bowler of the last six months is a doubt, with an ankle injury variously described as serious or niggling, and one likely to keep him out for three weeks or six months. Shoaib has the genuine excuse that he is likely to be on a plane somewhere between Dubai and Johannesburg.

Steyn, who whipped out India's second-innings tail in Cape Town to set South Africa on their way, is also likely to be missing, a thigh strain that just won't leave him the culprit. Nel, whose bowling mph has begun to match the speed of his verbals, is back, having just recovered from a heel injury. All the sick notes led Allan Donald to justifiably grumble about playing Test matches so close to the World Cup particularly for the toll it will take on South Africa's fast bowlers. His suggestion, to rest one of the key bowlers and allowing them to miss a Test during the series, is one that would have rung home in the Pakistan side.

Good luck to the men tasked with facing all this fire, and recent displays suggest they might need all the fortune they can get their hands on. Pakistan will feel a little better about their opening problems for two reasons. One, their current pair of Imran Farhat and Mohammad Hafeez are in some form. Two, they have opponents who might actually sympathise with them.

Graeme Smith has almost been through an equal number of partners as Elizabeth Taylor had through husbands (six to Liz's eight) in his career. In the last 14 Tests alone, six different combinations have been tried (how Pakistan would kill for that sort of stability). Against India, the only notable stand was 99 between the incumbents Smith and AB de Villiers. There is some consolation, in that Smith appears to have relocated his buccaneering run-scoring ways.

Jacques Kallis averages 38 against Pakistan, some way below his career level © Getty Images
Beyond the top, both sides almost cancel each other out on current form. Pakistan possess what South Africa must crave: two formidable middle-order batsmen in Younis Khan and Inzamam-ul-Haq. They make do, instead, with Hashim Amla and Herschelle Gibbs, one struggling to establish himself internationally, the other struggling to re-establish himself. But South Africa also have what Pakistan crave: their best batsman. Where Jacques Kallis will both rescue and revive from the middle order, with able assistance from Ashwell Prince, Pakistan will try to plug a Grand Canyon-sized gap in the absence of Mohammad Yousuf.

Both, Pakistan's middle-order and Kallis, have records to set right: the former will hope to improve on 21.20, the batting average of Pakistani sides in six Tests in South Africa. The latter, meanwhile, will rightly consider an average of 38 in eight Tests against Pakistan a pretty severe aberration.

But given that the greatest legspinner the game has seen has only recently given his wrists a break, a nod towards the presence of, in this gluttony of pace, two tweaking wildcards is compulsory. Danish Kaneria wants to emulate Shane Warne and tormenting South Africa wouldn't be a bad way to begin. It was against them at Lahore in 2003, that he cemented himself as Pakistan's first-choice leggie, ahead of Mushtaq Ahmed. And the temptation to play Paul Harris must be there even if he has only played one Test, given Pakistan's record against left-arm spinners.

Pakistan (probable) Imran Farhat, Mohammad Hafeez, Younis Khan, Inzamam-ul-Haq (capt), Faisal Iqbal, Asim Kamal, Kamran Akmal (wk), Rana Naved-ul-Hasan, Shahid Nazir, Mohammad Asif, Danish Kaneria

South Africa (probable) Graeme Smith (capt), AB de Villiers, Hashim Amla, Jacques Kallis, Ashwell Prince, Herschelle Gibbs, Mark Boucher (wk), Shaun Pollock, Andrew Hall, Andre Nel, Makhaya Ntini

Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo