Centurion will test Pakistan's learning
One thing was evident about Pakistan's mood when they left Cape Town for Johannesburg (and ultimately Centurion) on Tuesday: they were relaxed. Many of them, including Saeed Ajmal, Umar Gul and Younis Khan, cradled babies, while the rest chatted and milled about like a tour group off on their next adventure.
Most of their squad are on their first trip to South Africa and seem to be enjoying it despite defeat in the Test series. They know they have nothing but further improvement to gain and the difference between their performance at the Wanderers and their showing at Newlands indicates the learning process is taking shape. Pakistan should be careful not get too comfortable with the upward curve, though, because SuperSport Park has been a snake pit for sub-continent sides and a fortress for South Africa.
None of India, Pakistan or Sri Lanka have ever won a match at the venue while it also challenges both the Wanderers and Newlands for status as the home of South African cricket. In results terms, the title belongs to SuperSport Park.
Since the ground came into existence after readmission, South Africa have lost on it only once to make it their most successful home venue. England are the only other team to have tasted victory in Centurion - theirs came in the 2000 Test in which both sides agreed to forfeit an innings and the result became famous for other reasons.
But the sub-continental record reads like a sorry saga. Sri Lanka have been defeated four times at and India and Pakistan once each. The last two teams beaten at the venue, India and Sri Lanka, were dealt innings defeats and South Africa have won five of the last eight Tests in Centurion by such a margin.
Reasons for their success at Centurion are simple. It is a typical South African surface that offers plenty for the quicks and turns batting into a challenge were only the toughest survive. "Those are the type of wickets we like to play on," Gary Kirsten, the South Africa coach, said. "We like pace and bounce and pitches that offer a lot to our bowlers because that has been a formula for success for us in the past. When we go to other countries, we play the type of cricket that they want to play. When we're at home we like to the play cricket we want to play."
The same can be expected this time with the pitch a familiar shade of green a day and half before game time. Hilbert Smit, the groundsman, has on previous occasions explained to ESPNcricinfo that the grass covering seen before a match can be misleading. Instead of indicating a raging green-top, it is often just colouring and does not play as violently as it threatens to.
But the threat has often been enough to unsettle visiting sides especially because SuperSport Park has often hosted the first Test of a series and they have yet to find their feet. Coupled with the mental effects of seeing a pitch that two days before the match is only briefly distinguishable from the outfield, teams have been skittled out.
In four of the last five Test at SuperSport Park, the first innings total was 250 or less and Kirsten expected the par score to hover around there again. "South Africa presents the toughest conditions to bat in," Kirsten said. "We have to give credit to our batsmen who on a regular basis perform on wickets that are doing a fair amount. When we look at a yardstick we say 400 is a good first innings score but in South Africa we have to realign our goals and maybe 300 is a very good competitive score."
Pakistan have had three weeks to shift their mindset and the demons that face many visiting teams at Centurion should not affect them in the same way. Their first Test nerves were settled three weeks ago at the Wanderers where they did not even have to front up first on a tricky pitch. Graeme Smith chose to bat first to get the series underway and South Africa had to survive bowler friendly conditions.
At Newlands they gave South Africa the "big battle" Kirsten said they expected and now they have the chance to take that one step further. Problems against the new-ball remain but one thing they can hope for at Centurion is that their bowlers, and Mohammed Irfan in particular, will be able to take as much advantage of the surface as South Africa's attack.
Something they should not expect, Kirsten warned, is that the No.1 team will relax, even though they have already won the series. "When Australia were at their peak and we occasionally beat them, it was a massive thing. Usually it was a dead rubber and they would always rub that in if we won with the series already decided, but we would always argue that we beat the best team in the world," he said.
"Now we are the best team in the world and we don't get to get beaten. We said that we don't want to lose any Tests this year. We want to be highly competitive and a very difficult team to beat. Every individual takes Test cricket very seriously and we want to give account ourselves because this is the last time we will play Test cricket until October or November." Words that will give Pakistan reason to snap out of any relaxation pretty quickly.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent