Johannesburg - In South Africa on the quick and bouncy surfaces, it’s the fast bowlers who always garner most of the attention, but Pakistan’s bubbly little off-spinner Saeed Ajmal will pose a major threat to South Africa regardless of the supposed lack of assistance from the pitches.
Ajmal has been Pakistan’s kingpin in recent years. Even during the scandal-ridden tour of England in 2010, his exuberance shone through. He claimed 12 wickets in those three Tests, including a “five-for” in the second Test at Edgbaston. His efforts were over-shadowed when then skipper Salman Butt, Mohammad Amir and Mohammad Asif were arrested for spot-fixing in the final Test at Lord’s.
As Pakistan sought to rebuild their credibility following that controversial tour, first with the appointment of Misbah-ul-Haq, Ajmal played an instrumental role in restoring respect for Pakistan’s national team, mainly through his determined deeds on the field.
Ironically, Ajmal’s greatest performance in a series would come against England, in the United Arab Emirates last year, when he claimed 24 wickets at an average of 14.70 during Pakistan’s whitewash of the then No1 Test side. Ajmal bowls a range of off-breaks and doosras and has been in trouble with the game’s authorities over the legality of the latter.
But in that happy-go-lucky manner of his he seems to charm his way into the hearts of viewers while bamboozling opposing batsmen. Last year he picked up 39 Test wickets in just six Tests, taking a wicket every 46 balls he bowled, a strike-rate only bettered by Vernon Philander and the West Indies’ Kemar Roach among the top 10 leading wicket-takers of 2012.
Will he have similar success in South Africa?
The South African batting line-up is among the strongest in the game and last year Graeme Smith and Hashim Amla in particular nullified the threat of Graeme Swann, then seen as the world’s premier off-spinner.
There will be assistance for Ajmal in South Africa. Spinners love bounce as much as the quick bowlers and there’ll be plenty of that, especially at the Wanderers and Centurion. Unlike the sub-continent (and the UAE where Pakistan have played most of their cricket for the last three years) Ajmal may have to get used to being the sole spinner in the starting XI. Abdur Rehmann is likely to be sacrificed as Pakistan aim to utilise their pace bowling threat to take more advantage of the new ball.
Over the weekend, Pakistan reinforced their fast bowling reserves calling up Tanvir Ahmed and Rahat Ali for the Test series. Tanvir, 34, is a veteran who’s played four Tests, the last of those against the West Indies in 2011. Ali is just 24, with only one One-Day International cap to his name, but a first class average of 20.35, achieved playing mostly in Pakistan, suggests he’ll welcome bowling in South African conditions.
Ajmal may have to play second fiddle to the quicks, especially in the first innings of the Tests. That will mean tempering his attacking instincts. How he handles that, and whether Pakistan can bat well enough to stretch the matches into the fourth and fifth days, will determine the impact he’ll have on this series.