Misbah's Midas touch
"They are not New Zealand," was one of the wisecracks muttered in the media box more than once. No, they are not.
Pakistan are a world apart from the team that toured earlier, and not just geographically. The five places between them and New Zealand on the Test rankings are the equivalent of many shades of competitiveness and it showed in the way South Africa were challenged. For the first time during this home summer, the No.1 ranked team was put under pressure by a thinking opposition, who delivered the challenge they promised.
Everything Misbah-ul-Haq tried, worked. His bowling tactics proved astute both when he brought on Younis Khan and Mohammed Hafeez for the first time and they nipped out Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers respectively, and when he brought back Junaid Khan with the old ball and gave the second new one to Hafeez mid-over. The only question that could perhaps be asked of the captain was why Hafeez, who finished with 4 for 16, did not bowl earlier than the 71st over.
Misbah's decisions were helped by a fielding performance that stood out for its superb catching and displayed a commitment that is not often associated with Pakistan. The same can be said for their discipline. Instead of tailing off after causing problems upfront, they kept at it.
Umar Gul and Junaid Khan set the tone when they found movement with the new ball, and even though the debutant Rahat Ali did not maintain the same amount of pressure, he operated with one of the other quicks to ensure the cork did not pop.
Junaid's opening exchanges were the most impressive. He moved the ball both ways for six overs, gave away just four runs but did not take a wicket. In that first spell, Sarfraz Ahmed told Junaid to simply keep going with the same intensity and accuracy and a wicket would follow. When he was brought back three overs later, it did.
It took 90 minutes for the breakthrough to come but in that time Pakistan applied pressure unrelentingly. South Africa's openers were tested throughout, by the bounce and by the movement. They were beaten many times, they were unsure which balls to play and which to leave and they made Smith's decision to bat look a brave one.
By lunch, South Africa were sitting uneasily with both openers dismissed in the space of five balls and Pakistan clearly on top of things. But any team with Jacques Kallis and Hashim Amla at the crease will not consider themselves in too much trouble. It took sensational fielding and clever bowling to remove both but as soon as Pakistan did, they were the ones that laid down a marker because their dogged determination was paying off.
Pakistan's persistence wore South Africa's patience thin. Four of the top six batsmen gave their wickets away, either through uncertainty outside off stump or weariness of playing the waiting game. As Faf du Plessis said afterwards, South Africa did not feel there was a single bowler they could target and that frustrated them. "Because they've got a lot variation, you never feel like there is a guy to attack," he said.
When South Africa tried aggression, it failed them. Smith survived the early test of swing but then went after a ball he could have left alone, Jacques Kallis could not control the pull after hitting from a wider line than normal, Hashim Amla chased after one and AB de Villiers, after losing patience against Saeed Ajmal, succumbed to Hafeez.
That gave Misbah the opportunity to experiment without it being a major risk. His best move was giving Hafeez the second new-ball, which the bowler said was not part of the initial plan. "We just thought that, with the left-handers at the crease, we would try," Hafeez said. "I had done it a few times before, especially in one-day cricket."
South Africa looked like a side that had not done their homework. Not only did they not expect Hafeez to bowl with the new ball, "because we are used to seeing two seamers upfront," according to du Plessis, but they were also not prepared for the ball that goes on with the arm. "He is a tricky bowler because he skids the ball on and so it was a bit of surprise," du Plessis said. Robin Peterson decided to leave one that he thought might spin away but it slid on and took the top of off stump.
Hafeez's career-best figures ensured Pakistan started the series with the intent one hoped they would display. It also provided a scene-setter to one of the more intricate battles of the series, the one between the captains. While Graeme Smith celebrated a milestone and a birthday, Misbah showed skill in leading his men.
"Misbah is a great character. He makes things very simple," Hafeez said. "The players always want to perform for him and give something to the captain. He's turning out to be one of the best for Pakistan." It is too early to say whether the series could go the same way as the first day, but on this evidence, it has the potential to.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent