In a spin: Proteas coach Boucher reassesses expectations of Karachi pitch before first Test
The present generation of South African cricket players will face a new challenge when they meet Pakistan in the first of two Tests, starting in Karachi on Tuesday morning.
The last time the Proteas were in Pakistan, South Africa’s rugby team were also world champions. But that’s where the similarities end.
Back in 2007, the rand/dollar exchange rate was around R7.20. Today it’s R15.16. In 2007, Proteas captain Quinton de Kock hadn’t yet played for the King Edward School (KES) first XI and coach Mark Boucher was still five years away from retiring from Test cricket. He’s been retired for nearly nine years. De Kock will play his 50th Test in Karachi.
Pakistan itself has seen much change. Prime Minister Imran Khan is the sixth person to hold that office since the Proteas last toured the country. But as much as things change, they stay the same.
Nothing will be easy for the tourists and like the last time they toured, and the time before that, they have been isolated in plush accommodation for their own safety. This time around though, the threat is not only political, but medical as the Covid-19 pandemic continues to hold the world in its grip.
The “bio-bubble” in which the Proteas are trapped (and the Pakistan team too) is just another mental challenge the teams have to overcome. For South Africa, the challenges are deeper as they are in a foreign land — perhaps as foreign as a cricket land can be for a South African — and playing in conditions that will test their mentality more than their techniques.
Pakistan will be led for the first time by batsman Babar Azam. New Zealand’s Kane Williamson might statistically be the best batsman in the world at this moment, but there isn’t a batter on the planet as easy on the eye as Azam.
Neutrals will want to watch him bat for days. The Proteas will want to see the back of him in minutes if they are to have any chance of claiming only their third win in Pakistan in this, their eighth Test in that country.
Spin or seam?
To that end, the Proteas will leave their team selection until the last moment because they were caught off guard by the conditions at the National Stadium in Karachi on their first inspection of the site a few days ago.
This is winter cricket in Pakistan. The outfield was lusher than expected and the pitch revealed it might play slower. Before South Africa departed home they predicted the conditions would be suited to reverse swing, but that was based on historical data captured in much warmer October weather.
After seeing what is in store, Boucher has altered his opinion and expects that spin will be the decisive discipline in this Test. So, it’s just as well the touring party has some options. Boucher confirmed that his team will “definitely play more than one spinner”. That would be a big departure for a team that relies on seam and was expecting reverse swing conditions.
“We spoke about reverse swing but having gone to the ground only recently, we found the outfield was very green and quite moist,” Boucher told the media in an online briefing. “I don’t know how big a weapon reverse swing is going to be. The conditions are going to be proper subcontinent conditions and I don’t think there will be a lot of assistance for seamers.
“We always revert back to our seaming options because that’s what we get grown up to think,” Boucher said. “But if it looks like it’s going to turn, we must make the right selections and make good cricket calls. I encourage an open mindset rather than going back to the norm.
“It’s a two-match series, so we can’t go one down and have regrets that we should have played an extra spinner. We’ve got to make the call right now. We’re coming with a mindset that if we want to win a series away from home, we’ve got to make a couple of brave calls.”
At this stage, it appears that Keshav Maharaj will retain his place with Tabraiz Shamsi taking the other spinning berth. If Kagiso Rabada — who missed the recent home Sri Lanka series — plays, only one of the three-pronged seam attack that did duty then will play.
Anrich Nortje, Lutho Sipamla and all-rounder Wiaan Mulder are probably vying for one place, with Lungi Ngidi taking the new ball with Rabada.
Boucher said that “pace through the air” is a weapon not to be underestimated, which would put the 150km/h-plus Nortje in the favourites column to grab the other available berth.
Wrist spinner Shamsi hasn’t played a Test since 2018, but spinner-friendly conditions in the sub-continent is not the worst way to have an introduction to the arena.
“Tabraiz has been selected as an attacking, aggressive spinner,” Boucher said. “If you get given the opportunity to give him a chance in spinning conditions, then why not?
“Kesh is hungry, He didn’t bowl a lot against Sri Lanka, for various reasons like the wicket was more conducive to seam bowling. He is hungry to get stuck in and play a role.
“Being our main spin bowler over the last few years, with all respect to him, he didn’t have the best tour of India (in October 2019). We’ve worked on a couple of technical things and he has come on in leaps and bounds. He is itching to get out there, especially in these conditions where he knows he is going to be bowling a lot and potentially could have a series where he could have a massive impact on a win.”
Azam to lead Pakistan
Azam will captain Pakistan in a Test for the first time in what is the most high-profile series in the country since the International Cricket Council (ICC) tentatively allowed the nation to stage home matches on its own soil in 2015.
Azam missed the recent away two-Test series against New Zealand with a broken thumb, and his presence is a huge boost for a young team. Much like the Proteas, Pakistan are also in a rebuilding phase as they search for their best combinations.
Azam prefers to let his bat do the talking and despite lots of feisty verbal sparring seen between Australia and India, and England and Sri Lanka in recent weeks, Pakistan will aim to make the series more polite.
“According to me, aggression is sometimes required. But not on the field, it should be off the field. On the field, whatever you have planned, whatever plans you have given to the boys, you have to back them,” Azam said in the lead-up to the match.
“Sometimes, you may not get a performance that you expect. But in these situations, it is good for the team if you can back it as much as possible. Aggression on the field isn’t a good thing. It doesn’t look good on the TV, also. But you do have a few words with the players during drinks breaks, or you speak to them off the field. But during a match, you have to back a player.”
Azam’s approach might be refreshing, but a South African team coached by Boucher, captained by De Kock with the likes of Rabada, Dean Elgar and Faf du Plessis as lieutenants, is unlikely to take the same view on aggression as Azam.
If anything, the Proteas will use any legal method possible to get into the heads of their opponents. Boucher made that much clear.
“The unpredictability of Pakistan will always be there. I won’t say they’re moody cricketers, but if they’re up for a game they are at their best,” Boucher said. “If we can get them doubting themselves, if we can get them to doubt themselves early in the match, then we must do that.”
Let the hostilities commence. DM
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