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Chasing history, Pakistan seek batting solidity against Dale Steyn and Kagiso Rabada

Aiden Markram, Faf du Plessis, Kagiso Rabada and Dale Steyn run towards pavilion as the rain comes down Associated Press

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South Africa's first Test of the home summer is one of three starting on Boxing Day around the world, and there are a couple of reasons why this match is definitely worth following amid a packed schedule. For starters, it will be Centurion's first time hosting the fixture, but that's not the only historic element to the occasion: having drawn level with Shaun Pollock six months ago in Galle, Dale Steyn needs one more scalp to make the South African Test bowling record his own.

Steyn won't have his bunny Mohammad Hafeez to bank on for the record after the Pakistan opener's Test retirement, but he'll be no less motivated to perform in his absence. Steyn will also have the added responsibility of leading the attack without Vernon Philander or Lungi Ngidi as back-up, with both players injured, though the presence of the world's top-ranked Test bowler, Kagiso Rabada, will help. While Steyn is no less fearsome a prospect at 35 than he was the last time Pakistan toured in 2013, it is likely Rabada who will challenge them most.

ALSO READ: Bogeyman Steyn returns to claim his record

With or without Hafeez, Pakistan are one of the most watchable teams going, whether they're winning or losing, and they will be chasing a little history of their own. Pakistan have never won a Test series in South Africa and indeed, haven't won a Test here in more than ten years.

This series could present Pakistan their best ever chance to get past South Africa in their backyard. The hosts no longer have the genius of AB de Villiers to call upon, a couple of their preferred bowlers are injured, and Hashim Amla is in the midst of a long dry spell. Pakistan have arrived with a bowling attack capable of exposing any frailties in South Africa's middle order.

The visitors will also still be carrying the pain of their defeat to New Zealand a month ago, when inconsistent batting allowed the visitors to break a 49-year run of away bad luck against them. Victory would provide a salve for those wounds, but South African conditions will not make things any easier for the visiting batsmen, and they will also know that if Steyn does not get them, Rabada will. There is a mountain to climb if Pakistan are to overcome the hosts.

Form guide

South Africa LLWWW (completed matches, most recent first)
Pakistan LWLWD

In the spotlight

It's been a long haul for Dale Steyn to reach the milestone at the brink of which he now stands. He has played only six Tests in the last three years due to injury, but he has found both form and fitness in the lead-up to this series. He held nothing back during the Mzansi Super League, but Steyn has made no secret of the desire for Test success that has kept him motivated. Expect crazy eyes, fire and brimstone with the ball, and a chainsaw celebration to top them all when the moment comes.

Pakistan coach Mickey Arthur reckons his team has the bowling power take 20 wickets "comfortably" in any conditions, and he has made similarly bellicose comments about his batsmen. With Fakhar Zaman back to fitness, the opportunity has come for him to build on his debut effort against Australia, when he fell six runs short of a century in his first Test innings. His efforts at the top of the order will be vital to Pakistan's success. If he can overcome the challenges presented by Steyn and Rabada, the job of the middle order becomes much easier.

Team news

South Africa's pace cupboard has been stripped by injury, and there have been a couple of niggles in the batting camp too. Theunis de Bruyn has recovered from the back injury he picked up during the Mzansi Super League, but there are still lingering doubts around Temba Bavuma's hamstring. If Bavuma isn't passed fit to play, Zubayr Hamza will slot into the XI - becoming the 100th South African to play Test cricket since readmission.

South Africa (probable): 1 Aiden Markram, 2 Dean Elgar, 3 Theunis de Bruyn, 4 Hashim Amla, 5 Faf du Plessis (capt), 6 Temba Bavuma/Zubayr Hamza, 7 Quinton de Kock (wk), 8 Keshav Maharaj, 9 Dale Steyn, 10 Kagiso Rabada, 11 Duanne Olivier

Pakistan have announced that Shadab Khan and Mohammad Abbas are not fit for the first Test. Fakhar Zaman is going to play, however, and will open the batting with Imam-ul-Haq.

Pakistan: 1 Imam-ul-Haq, 2 Fakhar Zaman, 3 Azhar Ali, 4 Haris Sohail, 5 Asad Shafiq, 6 Babar Azam, 7 Sarfraz Ahmed (capt & wk), 8 Mohammad Amir, 9 Yasir Shah, 10 Hasan Ali, 11 Shaheen Afridi

Pitch and conditions

The Centurion pitch is gaining a reputation for being somewhat unpredictable. It's traditionally pace-friendly, but during the Mzansi Super League the tracks here encouraged spinners, with Tabraiz Shamsi clean-bowling AB de Villiers with one that dipped, gripped and turned through the gate, and the likes of Jeevan Mendis, Shaun von Berg and Sean Williams enjoyed themselves too. The South Africans have apparently not been in touch to ask for a tailor-made track for the first Test, and while the groundsman is aiming for pace and bounce, don't be too surprised if there's something in it for the spinners. The first two days of the Test should be hot and sunny, but summer thunderstorms are common on the Highveld this time of year and there could be rain around towards the back end of the game.

Stats and trivia

  • A 3-0 win could carry South Africa to second in the Test rankings, and to within one point of India, should India lose the remaining two matches to Australia.

  • Shaun Pollock's Test bowling record of most wickets by a South Africa bowler has stood for ten years.

  • Steyn has played 88 Tests to Pollock's 108

  • The last time these two teams played a Test at Centurion, in 2013, South Africa won by an innings and 18 runs

Quotes

"No, I've got him out enough times. He's a fantastic player and we had a great rivalry. I hope he enjoys his time off."
Dale Steyn isn't too disappointed that Mohammad Hafeez, whom he dismissed 15 times in international cricket, has retired from Tests