CENTURION – “I’ve been a good boy,” smiled Faf du Plessis when being asked what he’d like from Santa this Christmas – a pitch at SuperSport Park that fits with the ground’s tradition.
That would be a 22-yard strip with pace and bounce.
Du Plessis didn’t get that last season in the Proteas’ second Test against India played in mid-January, which was too dry, slow and actually spun.
Quite what Santa – in the form of SuperSport Park groundsman Bryan Bloy – will be filling Du Plessis’ Christmas stocking with will be a surprise, although in this case, Du Plessis doesn’t really like, or want, surprises.
“To be honest, I’m not sure (what to expect),” Du Plessis said after he’d examined the surface on Christmas Eve.
South Africa cancelled their training session at the ground on Christmas Day, meaning the next time Du Plessis sees the pitch will be on Wednesday, just before the start of play.
“I like clarity when preparing for a Test at home, to help with the options for the team – for instance, do we want to play four seamers, especially when sub-continent teams get here.
“But the nature of the pitch, especially after what happened last year, you definitely need a spinner on this wicket.”
Last summer was the exact opposite of what Du Plessis and the Proteas wanted. Player after player, batsmen and bowlers, both South African and Indian, expressed their surprise.
The Proteas won of course, but it was not in the manner they want to play. It was a grind, and cricket at SuperSport Park shouldn’t be a grind.
If it happens that the surface allows for what Du Plessis and his team want then the home team certainly have the armoury in their attack to thrive.
Dale Steyn – by his own admission feeling like a 23-year-old, but armed with the 14 years of Test experience – appears to be bowling as well as at anytime in his career.
Kagiso Rabada has looked fit and strong and grew in confidence throughout the recent Mzansi Super League, while Du Plessis was impressed by what he saw from Duanne Olivier, whom he faced in a domestic match in Bloemfontein last week.
“After the weekend of playing against him, I’m confident that he is the perfect bowler if there is a bit of pace and bounce.”
THE NATIONAL ANTHEM will be performed by the South African National Defence Force at 09:50am.— The Titans (@Titans_Cricket) December 24, 2018
Don't miss it! Show your support during the Boxing Day Test at SuperSport Park. Tickets at @TicketProSA #SAvPAK pic.twitter.com/ja7p5uMMMs
Pakistan have some flamethrowers of their own, who’ll delight in such conditions – Mohammad Amir and Shaheen Shah Afridi both propel the ball at speeds approaching 140km/h – although the absence of Mohammad Abbas from the first Test is a big blow for the tourists.
In leg-spinner Yasir Shah, skipper Sarfraz Ahmed believes he has the key difference maker between the two teams.
“He took 200 wickets in 33 Tests, and we know South Africa haven’t played a top-quality leg-spinner in three years. So we have an advantage, we have Yasir Shah, and hopefully they will struggle against him.”
Both teams have question marks over their batting. Pakistan’s openers have been poor and if that continues here, it’ll expose a middle-order high on talent, but low on consistency.
Dean Elgar and Aiden Markram have had their struggles, something Du Plessis acknowledged, but he’s trusting their experience to get the Proteas off to a good start.
And then there’s Hashim Amla, who’ll be restored to the No 3 spot, but whose recent form has been cause for concern.
“He’s not scored the amount of runs he’s wanted to in the last year, but it’s a new season, he’s coming off a 50,” Du Plessis said.
“It will be important for him to get off to a good start in the series, to settle the nerves and be confident.
“These things are a battle within yourself as player, you must make sure you fight whatever you need to fight, and get over what you what need to get over in your head.”
Theunis de Bruyn, who passed a fitness test on Monday, will bat at No 4, while Temba Bavuma, who had a hamstring strain and then a cold, is expected to start.
“The two sides have tremendous bowling attacks, both in good form.
“Our success in this series will be the form of the batters. Hopefully we get two or three guys who have a good series,” said Du Plessis.
The match starts on Wednesday at 10am.
Squads For Centurion
South Africa: Faf du Plessis (captain), Hashim Amla, Temba Bavuma, Theunis de Bruyn, Quinton de Kock, Dean Elgar, Zubayr Hamza, Keshav Maharaj, Aiden Markram, Duanne Olivier, Vernon Philander, Kagiso Rabada, Dale Steyn, Dane Paterson (cover for the first Test).
Pakistan: Imam-ul-Haq, Fakhar Zaman, Shan Masood, Azhar Ali, Haris Sohail, Asad Shafiq, Babar Azam, Sarfraz Ahmad (captain), Mohammad Rizwan, Yasir Shah, Shadab Khan, Mohammad Abbas, Hassan Ali, Mohammad Amir, Faheem Ashraf, Shaheen Shah Afridi.@shockerhess