South Africa v Pakistan, 2nd Test, Cape Town, 3rd day February 16, 2013

South Africa look to Peterson

Robin Peterson goes about his business in an understated fashion but, after making his Test best score with the bat, he now has a big opportunity with the ball

Robin Peterson is not bothered by limits. He is not even overly concerned with pushing them, although, as he showed with his carefree 84 on the third day, he is able to.

Peterson has always operated within parameters. He understood that when he was not the first-choice slower bowler and not even the second or third. He understood that, because he does not turn the ball much and relies on flight and composure, he would have to wait in line for a spot. He understood that, although he was capable of wielding the bat, he would get few chances to construct an innings and would usually be required to do a risky, thankless slog job.

He understood he may never graduate from limited-overs player to Tests and, when that changed, he understood he would have to operate in the shadow of a pace attack that would rarely allow him to get a look in. On the day he made his mark, he understood he was not really the player that stood out.

Instead, it was the "genius" Saeed Ajmal, as Peterson called him, who everyone was talking about. Ajmal only took one wicket in the morning session and seemed to tire as he bowled 10 overs straight, after picking up from his 25 on day two. He got a break when Pakistan took the new ball and Mohammed Hafeez took over but returned to bowl seven overs later.

With a softer ball and conditions that were easier for batting, Ajmal was slightly less threatening on day two but he still posed many questions. Peterson, like AB de Villiers, decided to approach Ajmal a little more positively than the rest of the line-up had, did not cut off the off side as a scoring area and was able to take advantage if anything was tossed up.

"The guy is pretty much a genius when it comes to spin bowling and it's tough to have the concentration to face him all the time," Peterson admitted. "But it became easier the more overs he bowled. I tried to play as straight as I can and if I managed to pick one, I tried to get it away."

In between negotiating Ajmal, Peterson also had to content with the 7ft Mohammad Irfan and the new ball, an experience he described as "pretty terrifying". But, as with Ajmal, it got easier with time, proving this surface to be one that can swallow a batsman at the start of his innings but which could become less hostile the longer they can hang on.

Both sets of batsmen will do well to keep that in mind because the Test match will likely depend on who can apply that better and which bowlers can prevent it. It is set up for a finish fitting of a match that has been compelling so far. Mohammad Akram, Pakistan's bowling coach, called it "Test cricket at its best". The first session of the fourth day will go a long way to determining whether it remains captivating or if it folds.

Pakistan have two set batsmen and a ball that will still be used for 36 overs. They also have the knowledge that the man Graeme Smith called "our best bowler on flatter wickets", Morne Morkel, is unlikely to bowl because of his hamstring strain.

That will put more responsibility on Jacques Kallis, who may bat lower down if he exceeds his quota of overs again. It will also leave Peterson with a big role to play. Even though he doesn't have Ajmal's variation on a surface that may start to crack, he will be important to South Africa's chances. In the same way he approaches almost everything, he sees this as an opportunity to show what he can do, within his limits.

"I know I didn't bowl particularly well in the first innings but I feel I am hitting my straps at the moment"
Robin Peterson

"I know I didn't bowl particularly well in the first innings but I feel I am hitting my straps at the moment," he said. "Tomorrow will be interesting because Pakistan might look to attack me or they might defend." Peterson was the bowler they targeted in the first innings, with success. In the second one, he came on with Pakistan under pressure and they treated him far more tentatively. He also bowled a better length, not as full, to do more of a containing job.

Peterson also seems to understand the importance of not wasting a second opportunity to make an impact. "It's nice to play a Test match where I get to bowl a little bit but, also, this is the real deal," he said. "It's the kind of match where maybe your fitness gets tested a bit more and it's probably more the Test cricket that I expected to be playing when I came back into the side."

The challenge is set to continue, with much resting on how much Pakistan post or how much South Africa can restrict them to. Both Peterson and Akram feel that a fourth-innings target of 250 will be tricky. Peterson said South Africa "do not want to be chasing more than 300".

Pakistan will still have to bat with the same fight they showed in the first innings and deal with the second new ball far better, if they want to an advantage. They already had one, with South Africa five down overnight, and let it slip. Akram hopes that will not be the case again.

"We are a little bit disappointed because we had a chance to get a good lead but we are still in the game," he said, pointing to the improvement in Pakistan's competitiveness from Johannesburg as inspiration. "When the first Test finished, we discussed deleting this from our system and said it's a new beginning. We want to play good cricket and we want to play graceful cricket." The good and the graceful, a bit like the difference between Peterson and Ajmal.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent