There is supposed to be some kind of certainty in covering the teams at the top and bottom of the Test rankings. You have a fair idea of who is expected to win and who is expected to lose. In the last month, that assumption has been twisted out of shape and it's all because of Pakistan.

It was barely believable that they lost to Zimbabwe in Harare and almost equally surprising that they dominated South Africa to earn such a comfortable win in Abu Dhabi. Misbah-ul-Haq put it down to conditions but there's much more to Pakistan's performance than just the comfort of a flat track.

For a start, the pitch at Harare Sports Club would be flattered to be classed under the bowler-friendly category. Although conducive to quicks in the morning, especially on the first and second days, it's closer to the harmless Natal green snake than the mamba it has been made out to be.

Pakistan's defeat was a result of carrying an unsuccessful opening pair, who were separated all too easily, having their younger batsmen frustrated by an inability to score runs through disciplined if not exactly scary seamers and three batsmen, Tino Mawoyo, Hamilton Masakadza and Brendan Taylor, who have developed as players of spin and have the temperament to bat out tough periods.

Those who were at HSC may well say Zimbabwe won because they were the more determined side, or in clichéd, cricket-speak, the side which 'wanted it more.' And the same could be applied to describe the way Pakistan performed at the Sheikh Zayed Stadium.

They went into the game confident of their ability in the UAE. The insecurity of an unfamiliar surface was absent and so was their biggest weakness. Dropping Mohammad Hafeez robbed Pakistan of experience and an additional bowler, but it appears the bravest, and perhaps even the best decision, the administrators have made.

Hafeez's awareness of the off stump may have been better in these conditions but his form against top-class bowlers has been wanting and benching in him in favour of players with a more sound technique to man the opening slot was the right decision.

That does not mean Khurram Manzoor or Shan Masood are the future. Not yet. They were both dismissed in Hafeez-esque ways in the second innings but they showed promise. They have a balance between patience and intent that saw Pakistan score at a rate between three and four runs an over, while giving them a base to build from and allowing the middle-order to bat without the pressure of survival is what set Pakistan up for victory.

The quality of Pakistan's innings was aided by a confused performance from their opposition, who misunderstood the length required of them. But it was also spurred on by a more aggressive mindset from Pakistan. Everyone from Manzoor to Adnan Akmal seemed to understand they could score runs. In Zimbabwe and in South Africa earlier this year, Pakistan played as though they thought they could not.

Since 2010, Pakistan have not lost in the UAE. It is not their home but they have come to think of themselves as having ownership here. They allowed themselves to drive Dale Steyn through the offside when he ventured too wide or pulled Morne Morkel if he dropped it short.

It is also on these surfaces where they know their ability against spin can come to the fore, be it while bowling or batting. South Africa's spin department for this Test was weak and Pakistan took full advantage. While Robin Peterson offered them too much flight and bowled too many full tosses, the South African middle order were easy targets for Saeed Ajmal and Zulfiqur Babar.

South Africa are not bunnies against spin. They have decent records against the likes of Graeme Swann and even Ajmal from the last tour. But just as they have improved in their footwork and ability to read a turning ball, Ajmal has become more cunning. Faf du Plessis and most of the tail were troubled by him and because he can bowl all day, Pakistan used him in that capacity.

Though, Pakistan did not rely solely on Ajmal. Babar was a more than adequate back-up and the two seamers were exceptional. Mohammad Irfan has worked on his stamina and can bowl longer spells without the fear of breaking down. Junaid Khan was described by Zimbabwe's players - who will be quietly chuckling to themselves that they are now the yardstick - as the most improved bowler from the Pakistan of two years ago. He is dangerous with both the new and old balls and creates problems with his angle.

With all of these elements working together, Pakistan put on an all-round performance they can be proud of. They were committed in the field as well, with Irfan showcasing many inelegant but effective methods of saving runs. This was the performance of a team who had something to prove, against one who may have felt their long unbeaten record on the road meant they had already shown what they are capable of.

It is not like South Africa to take things for granted but with minimal preparation and a long absence from Test cricket, they still declared themselves ready to play, from mid-way through the warm-up match when some of their players said they would be able to walk into a Test match, "tomorrow." Pakistan might have sensed that as over-confidence and they pounced on it.

The importance of this result for Pakistan and their personnel was highlighted merely by watching Dav Whamore's reaction. When Misbah launched Peterson for six, Whatmore was out of his seat almost before the ball had landed on the other side of the boundary and was on his way to shake hands with the South African support staff.

He waited on the sidelines for Misbah, to whom he offered no outstretched hand. The pair were couched in a bear hug which said more than any words could. They were joined in relief and joy, knowing some part of the job is done but there is still more to do. Just a few weeks ago, they were united in embarrassment following the loss to Zimbabwe.

Is this the same team who were humiliated in Harare? Some parts of it are and the parts that are not appear improved, infused with optimism and in touch with what they need to do to win.

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'Pakistan will get stronger after win'
'Pakistan will get stronger after win' - Waqar Younis

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent