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Vernon Philander's return amps up pressure on Pakistan's middle order

Vernon Philander in his pre-delivery leap Getty Images

Big Picture

But for one mad, self-destructive session, Pakistan might have maintained their grip on the first Test, but instead they have conceded a series lead and the pressure is on to bounce back at Newlands. A similar second-innings meltdown cost them the Test match, and the series, against New Zealand in Abu Dhabi late last year, but the issues go further back than that for Pakistan and this is becoming a perennial problem.

After the first Test, captain Sarfraz Ahmed pointed to the game against New Zealand in Hamilton just over two years ago, when Pakistan collapsed from 131 for 0 to 230 all out, as the start of the rot, and middle-order fragility has only become more acute since the retirements of Younis Khan and Misbah-ul-Haq.

Not including Babar Azam's 71 and Shan Masood's 65, Nos. 3 to 7 contributed 74 runs across two innings in Centurion, and there will likely be little let-up at Newlands, despite the benign appearance of the pitch. South Africa's attack was strong enough to end the first Test inside eight sessions, and the return of Vernon Philander at a ground where he has made a habit of demolishing batting line-ups will only make things harder for the visitors.

South Africa will have to figure out how to fit Philander into their starting XI. Given how heavily seam dominated in the first Test, Keshav Maharaj might at first appear to be the candidate to sit out, but spin could be important in a Test expected to go the distance. With South Africa's middle order faring only slightly better than Pakistan's, Temba Bavuma and Hashim Amla's fifties notwithstanding, Philander's batting skills could also make a useful difference at a ground where he scored a first-class century on his comeback from injury in October.

Come-from-behind fightbacks aren't as rare as they used to be in Test cricket, and South Africa's approach to Cape Town will be anything but blase with a potential series win at stake. Pakistan may not be the happiest team at the moment, but they have been cornered and they still have the personnel to fight back - particularly now that they are picking from an (almost) fully-fit squad.

Form guide

South Africa WLLWW (last five Tests, most recent first)
Pakistan LLWLW

In the spotlight

Sarfraz Ahmed bagged a pair at Centurion, Faf du Plessis joining him in a bit of history as both captains went scoreless through the match. Du Plessis managed to joke about his own lapse, but Sarfraz might struggle to see the lighter side of things in the current context. Already under pressure, both his leadership and his performance will be under the microscope in Cape Town.

Vernon Philander has an outstanding record at Newlands - as du Plessis put it, Philander and Newlands "go together like peanut butter and syrup". Philander has had a difficult year injury-wise, a recurring ankle injury flaring up after the tour of Sri Lanka, with his return then being stalled by a hairline fracture in his thumb. The comfort of home-ground conditions will certainly ease Philander's transition back into the side.

Team news

"Vernon picks himself at Newlands and his record speaks for itself, so he will definitely be back in the side," du Plessis said after Centurion, and with the South African captain also confirming on the eve of the second Test that Duanne Olivier would be in the starting XI, South Africa have some reshuffling to do. They could drop their spinner or shorten the top order, but the option that might make the most sense to them is to rest one of the other quicks. Dale Steyn only took three wickets at Centurion, while Kagiso Rabada admitted ahead of the second Test that the last three months had been tiring for him, and he could possibly do with a breather. It would be very tough to leave either out with the series still alive, but South Africa have a choice to make.

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

While Haris Sohail is still on the sidelines, Mohammad Abbas and Shadab Khan have recovered from injury, and Pakistan will have to decide whether to stick with the team that failed on the Highveld or ring the changes. While the bowlers didn't do too badly in the first Test, the middle order could do with some bolstering.

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

Pitch and conditions

Rabada was confident in his assertion that South Africa believe they have the best bowling attack in Test cricket, but he wasn't so sure they'd steamroll Pakistan's batting again on a Newlands track he said looked "dull". While the ball can nip around at Newlands, the track can also sometimes be a little slow, and the bowlers may have to toil for their wickets. The Cape's weather can be changeable, but it should be set fair at this time of year, if a little windy.

Stats and trivia

  • Vernon Philander needs one more wicket to reach 50 wickets at Newlands, a ground where he averages 16.55 with a strike rate of 35.1.

  • Pakistan have played three Tests at Newlands and lost each of them.

  • The last time Pakistan played a Test here, Asad Shafiq scored a century, Vernon Philander took nine wickets in the match, Saeed Ajmal took ten, and South Africa won by four wickets.

Quotes

"They're a never-say-die team. You never really know what they can throw at you on the day. They've got some quality bowlers, and they've got some batters who have shown that they can bat and they can hang around. So we've got our work cut out for us."
Kagiso Rabada won't be taking Pakistan lightly in the second Test