South Africa v Pakistan, 2nd Test, Cape Town, 2nd day February 15, 2013

Ajmal gives South Africa a bad turn

They knew to be wary of Saeed Ajmal but that still couldn't prevent him giving South Africa their worst day of the summer

Like the certainty that the southeaster will blow in Cape Town, so was the knowledge that Saeed Ajmal would be a factor in this Test series. It was just a case of when.

South Africa knew it too. They made a point of saying, mostly unprompted, at every one of their interactions with the media, that they were preparing for him. They didn't ever say how, although it was suspected that a slew of spinners (few of whom can actually mimic Ajmal), the inside knowledge of Imran Tahir - who identified Ajmal's secret as being a dual doosra, one out of the palm, one out of the fingers as his biggest threat - and video analysis have been their resources.

That did not really pay off this time. Ajmal took all five wickets to give South Africa their first bad day of the home summer. Some will argue that the 253 all out at the Wanderers was another example but in light of what happened in Pakistan's first innings immediately afterwards that day was not so disappointing after all.

It was also in Johannesburg that Ajmal became a footnote. He went wicket-less in the first innings and was expensive in the second. Conditions offered him nothing and the South African line-up were able to blunt him.

As is his habit, Ajmal did not bowl too many bad balls but he came up against a middle-order that have become increasingly confident against spin. In that match, Ajmal bowled 42% of his deliveries to AB de Villiers, who is one of the more accomplished South Africa batsman against spin.

By the time de Villiers got to the crease at Newlands, the top-half of the batting order had already made it clear that Ajmal could not be neutralised in the same way. For a start, the conditions were completely different. South Africa's most tweaker-friendly surface lived up to its reputation and Ajmal responded to the smallest scent of spin.

"There was a little bit of purchase and it's a little more dry than we thought it would be," Russell Domingo, South Africa's assistant coach, said. "He didn't give us too many scoring opportunities and he is a lot more effective on these types of surfaces."

Ajmal found some turn, not enough to make a Ferris wheel go round but enough to induce poor shot selection and expose inadequacies. Graeme Smith played a sweep shot where he should rather have presented a straight bat because the turn was not as much as he expected. Alviro Petersen tried to clip fine but the inside-edge on to his pads put Azhar Ali at short leg in line for a smart catch.

Hashim Amla played Ajmal well for the most part. His rustiness got him a few runs on the leg side but he could not get the reverse sweep away and he also misread a crucial one. When it spun back into him, he was caught in the crease on the back foot and even the naked eye could see the ball was going to hit leg stump.

South Africa have been worse off than 84 for 3 since becoming world No. 1 last year, but only once, when they were 46 for 3 in Adelaide against Australia. Usually, their top four has done the bulk of the work. This time, workload management for Jacques Kallis meant sending Faf du Plessis in earlier, though neither survived the day.

South Africa could feel the heat and Pakistan's coach, Dav Whatmore, thinks that also played a role. "In the first Test the home team were not under any pressure," he said. "Here they were confronted with a totally different wicket and a different situation. It's not always going to be the same when you face quality bowlers. We found that as well."

"We were maybe too tentative against him and we will have to think about whether we are going to be a little bit more positive"
Russell Domingo on South Africa's approach against Saeed Ajmal

Du Plessis struggled to read the angle, particularly because he, like the rest, eliminated the off side as a scoring area by taking guard on off stump. With no room to wriggle, he had to employ an ultra-conservative approach to Ajmal. He was either defending from well inside his crease or coming forward to do the same and he seemed to premeditate both, irrespective of what Ajmal actually presented him with. The cautiousness worried Domingo a little: "We were maybe too tentative against him and we will have to think about whether we are going to be a little bit more positive against him."

South Africa have to make that decision quickly because they will be back to face Ajmal in the morning and they will know it is primarily him they will be up against. Apart from his web of confusion, Ajmal's tirelessness was noteworthy. He began bowling from the Kelvin Grove End at 2:16 pm in the 12th over of the innings and finished at 6 pm, sending down his 25 overs in one marathon spell. He has shown no sign of stopping.

The next three days are forecast to be hot and dry with a southeaster gusting. The Cape doctor does not bring in any moisture and even though it may not arrive complete with white coat and stethoscope, it is the wind that saps the air. That means the surface will only find itself more parched.

South Africa have to bat last on it and it is with that and Ajmal in mind that the last recognised batting pair will resume in the morning. Domingo thinks if they can get "anywhere within 80 or 90 runs of their score, we will be happy," because "we know we can put pressure on them in the third innings."

Vernon Philander will be a factor, as he was in the first innings. His ninth five-wicket haul in 15 Tests was the fourth at his home ground. No matter what the conditions, Philander's line outside the off stump continues to create uncertainty. But for now, the questions are being asked of South Africa, who struggled to take wickets with the old ball and who are under pressure with the bat. How they answer those and how Pakistan interrupt their responses will be what decides this Test.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent