Pakistan attack can challenge South Africa
There are some places Pakistan have not played cricket in for even longer than their home country. South Africa is one of them.
Having last played a Test here in 2007, India is the only other place Pakistan have not featured in whites for the last six years although they played a one-day series in India recently. South Africa remains an uncharted territory for much of the squad. It has been so infrequently visited that none of the current Test bowling attack have played a Test in the country.
They have missed out. Known for their pace and bounce, South African surfaces are among the favourites of quicks the world over and Pakistan's pack cannot wait to get stuck in. "Junaid Khan would love to bowl in these conditions and Mohammed Irfan will do well if he can put the ball in the right areas," Misbah-ul-Haq, the Pakistan captain, said after arriving in Johannesburg.
The closest Junaid has got to South Africa is its neighbour, Zimbabwe, where he made his debut in September 2011. He played second fiddle to Aizaz Cheema in that match but has since overtaken Cheema with three five-wicket hauls from eight matches. Being a left-armer he may have half an eye on Graeme Smith with the South Africa captain having been susceptible to many southpaws over the years.
At 7' 1", Irfan had caught the eye of the South African media well before Pakistan's arrival in the country. Knowing the kind of bounce Morne Morkel can extract from surfaces, the hype around what someone eight inches taller may be able to do has grown.
So has the expectation over how South Africa's batsmen will deal with Saeed Ajmal. They have seen him once before, in a Test in 2010 in Dubai when he took three wickets but he has since developed into the magician that ran circles around the then No.1 ranked England. Facing Ajmal will be South Africa's first significant test against spin since becoming the No. 1 team.
Misbah suspects that Ajmal will also enjoy what South Africa has to offer. "Saeed Ajmal is the world's top spinner and in these conditions you get turn and bounce especially on the fourth and fifth days," he said.
While the bowlers are looking forward to assistance, the batsmen are readying themselves for a much sterner examination. South Africa is regarded as one of the toughest places to score runs, especially for the top-order. Of Pakistan's line-up, Taufeeq Umar, Misbah, Younis Khan and Mohammed Hafeez have all batted in South Africa before but the younger players such as Asad Shafiq, Azhar Ali and Nasir Jamshed will have their first taste of these conditions.
The pace of the pitches will take some getting used to. Shafiq has played in New Zealand, West Indies and the subcontinent while Jamshed, who starred in the one-dayers against India, has yet to make his Test debut. With limited touring opportunities because of their schedule, Misbah conceded that preparations have not been ideal although they have made the best of what they have.
"We have to bat well. Whenever we go abroad, we try to practice against bounce and pace. We use different tactics for that and we make sure we get ready before the Test matches," he said. "It's really difficult when you are not playing a format on a regular basis. You really have to work hard. But that's how it is. We are not playing more Test matches. But we have to adjust because we are professionals."
Dav Whatmore, Pakistan's coach, suggested batting could be rewarding for those who employ some patience. "It can be difficult, because of the general consistency of the slightly higher bounce and the pace might be more than normal," he said. "But if you get over that they're pretty good batting conditions as well, a bit like Australia. Our young guys who get through that will be in for good times."
Pakistan will play a three-day warm-up match against a fairly strong South African Invitation XI in East London where the surface is traditionally sluggish. That could be South Africa's way of softening the batsman up especially as historically the hosts have prepared seamer-friendly pitches against subcontinent sides and tried to scare their batsmen out. They may be wary of trying the same thing this time because Pakistan have a good attack of their own.
While pre-series talk will rage about how competitive a less "unpredictable," as Smith called them, Pakistan will be against South Africa, there is also an undercurrent of a campaign running through the visitors' camp. It is both a drive to show off their consistency and resolve and to talk openly about promoting the return of cricket to their home.
"Every stadium was full at the T20 tournament in Pakistan. There were no concerns and everyone enjoyed the game," Misbah said. "Ten of the players in the current Test side played in the final and there were no issues. Pakistan is such a big cricketing nation and the world really has to think about bringing cricket back there. Stadiums are full and nothing is happening."
The former ICC chief executive Haroon Lorgat, who is a South African, has been doing some consultative work for the PCB on the matter as well.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent