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Johannesburg – With so much technology around, social media providing up-to-the-second details of mankind’s toilet breaks, breakfast habits and love life, Pakistan’s cricket team deserves some credit for retaining a sense of mystery.
They’re a largely unknown bunch aside from the skipper Misbah ul-Haq, the vigorous old pro Younis Khan and of course the jolly Saeed Ajmal.
And the mystery makes them dangerous. They have a 2.16m left-arm fast bowler, a 24-year-old right-arm swing bowler, another teenage quick who only a year ago was facing the SA Under-19 team, and a left-hand opening bat yet to play a Test, but who some in Pakistan reckon could be the next Saeed Anwar.
Graeme Smith described them as an “unknown factor”, an indication that in the coming days, he and the national side’s management will be poring over as much footage of Pakistan’s players as they can lay their hands on. While he may not know the individuals intimately, Smith is acutely aware of the consistency they’ve achieved under Misbah’s leadership over the past two-and-a-half years.
Since their tour of shame to England in 2010, in which three players were fingered for spot-fixing at Lord’s, Pakistan have lost just one of eight Test series, winning six and drawing a two-game series with South Africa in Misbah’s first series as captain.
“I guess with Pakistan, people talk about the unpredictable nature of their cricket,” said Smith. “They seemed to be playing with a lot more consistently against England and in ODIs against India, so they will bring a lot of confidence.”
The 3-0 series whitewash of England a year ago was the outstanding achievement of Misbah’s tenure.
Of all the sub-continent teams, they are the one group capable of using South Africa’s challenging conditions to their advantage.
Misbah has express some concern about his batsmen adapting to the bounce on South Africa’s pitches. As with most players from the sub-continent, the extra bounce in South Africa takes some getting used to, but Misbah and Pakistan’s Australian-born coach, Dav Whatmore, believe that should they manage to get used to the conditions, there will be opportunities to make some big scores.
Younis will be vital in that regard given his experience of two tours here. He made a vital half-century in the fourth innings run-chase in Port Elizabeth, helping Pakistan to achieve just their second Test win in this country.
Perhaps just as important is their choice of opening batsmen.
Taufeeq Umar and Mohammed Hafeez are the incumbents but they may have given a clue to their plans for the Wanderers Test with the selection of the impressive left-hander Nasir Jamshed to open with Hafeez in the warm-up match against an SA Invitation XI in East London.
The 23-year-old rose to prominence with two centuries in the high-profile one-day series that Pakistan won in India recently.
If he can retain that kind of form for the Test series – and his first innings in East London suggested that was the case – then along with Hafeez and nuggety No 3 Azhar Ali, they will go some way towards nullifying South Africa’s potency with the new ball.
Pakistan don’t lack quality with the ball either. Unlike India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, Pakistan don’t struggle to find fast bowlers. In Junaid Khan, the giant Mohammed Irfan, Umar Gul and Ehsan Adil they have a quality quartet of quick bowlers, three of whom will likely feature at the Wanderers alongside Ajmal.
A bit like their batsmen, adjusting to the prodigious bounce, especially at the Wanderers and Centurion – the venue for the third Test – will be crucial for the Pakistanis. With the exception of Gul, none of their bowlers have played in South Africa.
Throw in Pakistan’s usual penchant for doing the unpredictable – their consistency of the last few years notwithstanding – and a fascinating series awaits.
It’s a series the South Africans should win, but with Pakistan, you just never know.
South Africa: Graeme Smith (capt), Hashim Amla, AB de Villiers, Faf du Plessis, Dean Elgar, Jacques Kallis, Rory Kleinveldt, Morné Morkel, Alviro Petersen, Robbie Peterson, Vernon Philander, Jacques Rudolph, Dale Steyn
Pakistan: Mohammed Hafeez, Taufeeq Umar, Nasi Jamshed, Azhar Ali, Younis Khan, Misbah ul-Haq (capt), Faisal Iqbal, Haris Sohail, Abdur Rahman, Umar Gul, Junaid Khan, Mohammed Irfan, Saeed Ajmal, Ehsan Adil , Asad Safiq
First Test – 1-5 February, Wanderers
Second Test – 14-18 February, Newlands
Third Test – 22-26 February, Centurion
First T20 – March 1, Kingsmead
Second T20 – March 3, Centurion
First ODI – March 10, Bloemfontein
Second ODI – March 15, Centurion
Third ODI – March 17, Wanderers
Fourth ODI – March 21, Kingsmead
Fifth ODI – March 24 Benoni – Sunday Independent