We enter the next phase of cricket-world embracing Pakistan into its fold yet again. Sri Lanka and Bangladesh toured to play Tests here in late 2019 and early 2020. Now, South Africa is set to become the first nation outside the subcontinent to grace a cricket-loving nation with the purest form of the game. It is the misfortune of the locals, players and cricket itself due to the times we live in that there will not be spectators present to quench their thirst for quality international cricket in Pakistan.
The sentimental value of it will ease out as the teams take the field. For Pakistan, the series will be about two things. Overcoming the whitewash suffered against New Zealand in the recently concluded away tour. And, take another step towards moulding the team to get used to the shift from slow turning tracks in the gulf to rather flat ones back home.
For the visitors, with a squad containing very few known names, every Test is about identifying the players that can carry the legacy of the once number one Test side forward. There were some positives from their 2-0 victory over Sri Lanka at home early this year. But, there was a gaping room for improvement, especially with the bat. As for the more important World Test Championship, both sides are out of the reckoning for this edition.
Pakistan have made wholesale changes to their squad after the New Zealand whitewash. They have dropped as many as five players for the Tests against South Africa. These include their opener Shan Masood who has scored 33 runs in the eight innings since he scored 156 against England in their first Test of the tour.
In addition to Masood, those missing out are their pace spearhead, Mohammad Abbas and Naseem Shah. The exclusion of Naseem is particularly surprising as the 17-year old has 12 wickets in the three Tests played in Pakistan in this decade. This is next only Shaheen Shah Afridi’s 13. Their leg-spinning all-rounder Shadab Khan continues to a thigh injury.
Apart from playing at home, the biggest boost for Pakistan comes in the form of their captain and the best batsman Babar Azam. Having missed the two Tests against New Zealand due to a fractured right thumb, he is ready to take charge of Pakistan for the first time in whites.
The familiar challenge for the visitors
South Africa too are looking to get a lift in the form of Kagiso Rabada. Having missed the Tests against Sri Lanka, Rabada has already expressed his plans of bowling straighter lines to use reverse on the low bouncing pitches in Pakistan.
The bigger challenge for South Africa will be the ability of their batsmen to counter Pakistan’s spinners. Their experienced men in Faf du Plessis, skipper Quinton de Kock, Dean Elgar and Temba Bavuma average the lowest on tracks in Asia as compared to other places in the world. Aiden Markram’s averages 10.5 in four innings in the Subcontinent while Rassie van der Dussen is yet to bat outside South Africa. Their ability to counter spin after seeing off the new ball will decide the fate of the series.
In addition to facing spin, South Africa’s other challenge is bowling it. Their lead spinner – Keshav Maharaj – has adapted himself on being a defensive spinner for conditions back home. Thus, he struggles when he has to take the role of an enforcer. The other options who might play alongside him are a two-Test experienced Tabraiz Shamsi and George Linde, who will be on debut.
If we dig deep in history, Pakistan have won only four out of 26 Tests they have played against South Africa. Their win-loss ratio of 0.266 against the Proteas is the lowest among all Test-playing nations. With South Africa facing issues on and off the field, this series is set to be an excellent opportunity for the hosts to improve their record against their toughest opponent. But, nothing related to Pakistan cricket is as straightforward as it seems like.
Pakistan – Abid Ali, Imran Butt, Azhar Ali, Babar Azam ©, Fawad Alam, Mohammad Rizwan (wk), Faheem Ashraf, Yasir Shah, Shaheen Shah Afridi, Haris Rauf/Hasan Ali, Sajid Khan/Nauman Ali
South Africa – Aiden Markram, Dean Elgar, Rassie van der Dussen, Faf du Plessis, Temba Bavuma, Quinton de Kock (c & wk), Wiaan Mulder, Keshav Maharaj, Kagiso Rabada, Tabraiz Shamsi, Anrich Nortje
Picture Courtesy – Pakistan Cricket Board