Twenty months after Pakistan laid an Emirati smackdown on the No. 1 Test team in the world, they couldn't repeat the trick. South Africa came back and made their presence felt, much like Faf du Plessis' zipper. Praise was reserved, deservedly, for the South African bowling attack - described by Allan Donald as the greatest in the country's history - and how they pretty much wrapped everything up on day one of the second Test. Yet the situation wasn't dissimilar to the one Pakistan faced in the third Test of the England series (as almost everyone tweeted; in fact, it was the most the number 99 had been discussed since the long winter Sachin Tendulkar spent chasing his 100th hundred), but South Africa held the pillow firm until Pakistan stopped twitching. Thus it was the second day more than the first that showed the difference between the last two teams that have come to the UAE as world No. 1.
Much was, quite rightly, made of how Andy Flower turned England into a team that scored big hundreds. England have scored more double-hundreds since 2007 than they did between 1992* and 2007**. It is a lesson that South Africa have also taken on board, and they have done even better than England. No team has scored more 150-plus scores (31) than South Africa in the last six years, though each of the Big Three (Australia, India and England) has played at least five more Tests. This is what was on show during the second day of the Test in Dubai: Graeme Smith and AB de Villiers refused to get out, and when they did show some inclination to do so, Pakistan refused to oblige, Akmaling it up in customary fashion.
The two big hundreds by de Villiers and Smith also showed how South Africa have improved as a batting team in the last six years. In their first 15 years after readmission they scored 0.9 hundreds per Test match and their conversion from fifties was less than 30%. Now they score more hundreds than anyone else (they average 1.49 hundreds every Test during the last six years; India and Sri Lanka are the next best, at 1.2) and manage to convert them into big scores, despite their most prolific century-maker (Jacques Kallis) not being fond of them. (Not that they mind, considering only Alastair Cook and Kumar Sangakkara have scored more hundreds than Kallis since 2007.) In terms of their fifties-to-hundreds ratio they are far ahead of every other team in the world (85 hundreds to go with 114 fifties in these six years). It owes to a generation of batsmen who are - statistically, if not in terms of adulation - equal to the Australian and Indian batting line-ups of the last decade or so, particularly in their ability to seize the moment. And much like with England, their most successful coach (Gary Kirsten) was renowned for his own ability to convert fifties into tons and make those tons exceptionally big.
The contrast with Pakistan is obvious. Of the five 50-plus scores for South Africa in this series, twice they went past 150. In the first Test both Amla and de Villiers got out before scoring big hundreds because they were running out of partners, and therefore only JP Duminy's fifty in the first innings of the first Test could be considered to be not converting a start. By comparison, Pakistan had six 50-plus scores, but not one of them went as far as 150. Yet this series can be considered an over-achievement, as half of Pakistan's 50-plus scores were converted to hundreds. This has been Pakistan's greatest problem; their basic conversion - they have scored 108 fifties to their 35 hundreds - is poor compared to India, South Africa and England (who all have a ratio of a hundred to every 2.3 fifties or better).
Pakistan have historically not claimed to be a great batting nation, but in the period between 1992 and 2007 only England and Australia scored more hundreds, and only Australia had a better matches-to-hundreds ratio. Moreover, only Australia and India had a better fifties-to-hundreds ratio as well. Before we praise the #Mighty90sSide, it must be noted that over 60% of the hundreds scored for Pakistan in that period were in the new millennium. This should give pause in a country where the successes of the holy trinity of Inzamam, Yousuf and Younis are still underappreciated.
It remains one of Pakistan's great tragedies that this trio (who scored 28 hundreds to 34 fifties between the 2003 and 2007 World Cups) was so unceremoniously disbanded by a combination of retirement, the ICL, dressing-room politics, and Shoaib Malik. Perhaps the era 2007 onwards could have been more fruitful had Yousuf and Younis had normal ends to their careers as they guided the new crop of batsmen. The latter sorely needed it; a generation raised on shorter formats and mediocrity has come to the surface. Gone are the days of Javed Miandad (six double-centuries) and Zaheer (eight scores of 150-plus scores in 12 hundreds). Now a kid coming in aims to make a fifty, a hundred is beyond expectations, and only Fawad Alam can score a 150.
A cursory look at the domestic numbers is revelatory too. In the President's Trophy (Pakistan's elite first- class competition) last season there was one - yes, one - double hundred in 46 matches; scored by Umar Amin in a dead rubber. This year, the first round of matches (five in all) produced a grand total of one century and 16 fifties. The malaise that affects the national team has its roots in the domestic game.
Is this rectifiable? In a recent TV interview Mohammad Yousuf outlined how Bob Woolmer had improved him technically and mentally. Woolmer is the man Younis too often alludes to as one of his greatest influences. The stats bear them out - before Woolmer the two had a combined total of 16 hundreds and 30 fifties; since then, 30 hundreds and 30 fifties. They are also two of the four (alongside Zaheer and Miandad) with the most 150-plus scores in Pakistan's history - something even the greats of the '90s (Inzi and Saeed Anwar) struggled with. Yousuf, for instance, scored more 150-plus scores in his annus mirabilis, 2006, than Inzi and Saeed did in their careers.
So all Najam Sethi, Subhan Ahmed and everyone else at the PCB have to do to improve Pakistan's Test batting is to somehow change the culture of the domestic game or find another Woolmer. Easier said than done, I suppose.
*Specifically April 18 1992, the date when South Africa played their first Test match in over two decades, and the month in which Pakistan entered the post-Imran Khan era. **Specifically the 2007 World Cup - South Africa haven't lost an away series since then (and have embarked on two journeys to the No. 1 ranking); England appointed Andy Flower as the assistant coach a fortnight after the World Cup final; and Pakistan saw the breaking of the holy trinity.
Hassan Cheema is a sports journalist, writer and commentator, and co-hosts the online cricket show Pace is Pace Yaar. He tweets here