Test cricket is almost back and Pakistan should prove fiercer competition than New Zealand, who simply rolled over and played possum. ANT SIMS previews the first Test starting at the Wanderers on Friday.
It’s been six years since Pakistan last visited South Africa. It was a three-match series which the hosts won 2-1, and where AB de Villiers opened the batting. Things have changed drastically since then for both sides. While South Africa has stamped its authority on the Test cricket stage over the last 12 months, Pakistan has quietly gone about its business after the match-fixing scandal broke in England back in 2010.
The contrasts between South Africa and Pakistan are stark. The visitors played just six Tests last year, and while they lost their series in Sri Lanka, they trounced England in the United Arab Emirates, while South Africa played ten and didn’t lose a single game. The Proteas’ Test skipper will stand in his 100th Test as captain when the first match starts on Friday, while his opposite number has only played 36 Tests and only captained in 17 of those.
The list could go on, and it’s the differences between the two teams which makes the tour all the more exciting.
The sides last met in a Test series in 2010 in a two-match series, which was drawn in hot and generally unpleasant conditions. South Africa is a different kettle of fish, and the first Test at the Wanderers should dish up a spicy affair between bat and ball.
While the myth exists that the Wanderers pitch is always bowler-friendly, there have been some high scoring totals in the past few years. What does aid the bowlers, though, is the altitude, and the way the ball goes flying through the air. Such movement in the air will be a test for AB de Villiers’ keeping in particular and an even bigger Test for the Pakistan batsmen’s patience. It’s been one of their greatest failings, and it was evident in their warm-up match against the South African Invitation XI when their openers got off to a solid start in both their innings (a century partnership for each), but threw their wickets away later on. While regular opener Taufeeq Umar didn’t feature in that warm-up match, he’s also in doubt for the Wanderers Test, as he is still struggling with a leg injury, which means Nasir Jamshed could very well make his debut.
South Africa will have to focus on not getting too complacent – something they admitted happened against New Zealand before they bounced back. If there could be any criticism of the current team, it’s probably that they don’t always finish their opponents in a super-combo Tekken style move, and rather drag things out. It’s something which could cost them, especially against a side as unpredictable as Pakistan.
All in all, the stage is set for what should be a fascinating series, and provided the rain stays away for most of the first Test, we might even get a match which goes the full five days. Expect loads of short stuff from South Africa’s bowlers and loads of chatter out in the middle.
HAPPY HUNTING GROUND
Jacques Kallis has played more matches than any other South African against Pakistan. He’s scored 1,472 runs in 15 games at an average of 66.90 against the subcontinent’s dark horses, while skipper Graeme Smith is second on that list with 11 matches and 849 runs at an average of 44.68. Younis Khan is Pakistan’s leading scorer against South Africa, with nine matches and 750 runs at an average of 46.87. Kallis also has 23 Pakistani scalps in the bag in his 15 matches while Dale Steyn has a staggering 19 in five Tests.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Those who don’t keep a close eye on all things cricket might raise their eyebrows at some of the names in the Pakistan side. Junaid Khan is one of the names not many will recognise, but since making his debut against Zimbabwe in 2011, the 23-year-old has had a pretty impressive run. He’s picked up three five-wicket hauls in the process and was one of the more impressive bowlers during Pakistan’s warm-up game. He’s a promising left-armer who could pose a real threat for the likes of Graeme Smith, if Khan gets a game, of course.
Hashim Amla is in the form of his life at the moment and seems to have kicked off 2013 right where he stopped in 2012. He’s also got a good record against Pakistan and even if he doesn’t make a boat load of runs, he’s worth eyeing simply for those gloriously wristy flicks.
As it stands, weather conditions look good for the full five days of the Tests, with a couple of thunderstorms expected to interfere here and there – but that’s to be expected on the Highveld at this time of year. All in all, it looks to be a great series with few interruptions. DM
Photo: A man plays cricket in the fog in a park in Lahore January 1, 2012. Cold and dry weather is expected in most parts of the country for the next couple of days, the Pakistan Meteorological Department said on its website on Sunday. REUTERS/Mohsin Raza
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