Conditions in South Africa are tough with bouncy and seaming pitches, said Pakistan skipper Sarfraz Ahmed (left). Photo: Rahat Dar/EPA
JOHANNESBURG - Sarfraz Ahmed is an engaging sort. Ready with a smile, effusive, tough and looking forward to how his side plays here.

Yes he’s under pressure, he’s the captain of Pakistan after all. He rates his team’s chances of winning the three-match Test series against South Africa that starts in Centurion on Boxing Day, but is realistic about what his team needs to do to achieve what would be a historic triumph

On recent evidence it would be easy to laugh off Sarfraz’s optimism. Pakistan is fresh off a series defeat in the United Arab Emirates (where Pakistan play their ‘home’ matches) to New Zealand. Twice in that series they suffered final day batting meltdowns. 

And now they have to face - in the first Test against the Proteas  Dale Steyn and Kagiso Rabada.

“We aren’t thinking about our previous series, yes we didn’t play well and we owned that, but we have a very important tour here,” said Sarfraz.

In recent years South Africa has made no secret about wanting to play countries from the Asian subcontinent on green tracks and on ones that have a lot of bounce.

Two seasons ago Sri Lanka played on a green track at St George’s Park. When India faced the Proteas in Cape Town, Newlands’ surface was more reminiscent of what is usually found in the Highveld, with the ball flying around.

The Wanderers tried to get that right for the third Test and failed, but even that pitch was very fast, with the bounce dangerous, and the ground eventually got sanctioned by the ICC.

“All the Asian teams are struggling outside their own country but you have to play positive cricket when you play here. We can’t let grass on the surface worry us, we must play positively,” said Sarfraz.

It’s about intent, Sarfraz continued, echoing sentiments outlined last summer by India's Virat Kohli.

“Show your intent and it’s not about playing all your shots, like Fakhar Zaman, only Fakhar does that,” Sarfraz chuckled, seemingly happy to give his explosive left-hand opener licence to attack the South Africans.

For the rest of his batsmen, intent is about owning their space, leaving well, defending hard and putting away the loose ball. 

As with any Pakistan side, there is a lot of talent in the batting; Asad Shafiq, Azhar Ali and Babar Azam are all capable and away from home they’ve been successful. 

Pakistan’s coach Mickey Arthu believes his batsmen are better players away from home than they are in the UAE.

“The tempo of the game in the UAE is very slow simply because of the wickets. In SA the game will speed up at the start and then it sort of meanders off and that suits us to a point,” said Arthur.

“There are some very talented young batters there, who bat on off stump, not on leg stump any more, cover the bounce, the pace and swing, they play very, very well in these conditions.”

It’s one thing of course for Arthur to say that, quite another to see it in practice when Steyn and Rabada are bearing down on them.

“Steyn and Rabada are incredible we know that will be a real challenge for us,” Arthur added.

By the same token, Pakistan has an attack capable of exploiting South African conditions, as India’s seamers did last summer when they took 20 wickets in each match of that series.

Pakistan has more pace in their group, and variety thanks to the left-arm swing and speed of Mohammad Amir - who by all accounts is feeling fresh after missing the series against New Zealand - and 19 year old Shaheen Shah Afridi.

South Africa’s coach Ottis Gibson is also anticipating a series in which batsmen lacking confidence, will be tested by fast bowlers in conditions very much in the latter’s favour.

“Some of our guys haven’t had runs for a while, but some of their guys haven’t had runs for a while either. If it turns out to be two fragile batting line-ups then a lot will hinge on the strength of the two bowling attacks,” said Gibson.

Last summer South Africa’s batting was heavily reliant on the brilliance of AB de Villiers; his half-century in Cape Town turned around the first day of the first Test against India, his second-innings 80 gave South Africa control at Centurion and his magnificent century in Port Elizabeth was a key turning-point of the series against Australia.

De Villiers is no longer around, and South Africa will look to utilise a similar batting line-up as that which lost the second Test in Sri Lanka earlier this year. Theunis de Bruyn, who made a second-innings century in that match has to show he’s overcome his back injury in a four day game this week for the Titans in order to retain his spot at no.3 ahead of Zubayr Hamza, with the out of form Hashim Amla then down to bat at No 4.

“We do feel that the South African batting line-up is a good batting line-up but we are a very good bowling line-up and we think we can make some in-roads there,” Arthur remarked.

The injuries to Vernon Philander and Lungi Ngidi mean there is no option for the hosts to go into the first Test with an all pace attack - something that would have been unlikely anyway given the kind of pitches being produced in Centurion recently.

South Africa would expect to win this series. But Pakistan have talent, a point to prove and a coach familiar with conditions in this country. “This is no secret, I’d love to come here, with this talented Pakistan team and win,” said Arthur.

SQUADS

South Africa: Faf du Plessis (capt), 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

Pakistan: Imam-ul-Haq, Fakhar Zaman, Shan Masood, Azhar Ali, Haris Sohail, Asad Shafiq, Babar Azam, Sarfaraz Ahmad (capt & wk), Mohammad Rizwan, Yasir Shah, Shadab Khan, Mohammad Abbas, Hassan Ali, Mohammad Amir, Faheem Ashraf, Shaheen Afridi

TEST SCHEDULE

1st Test: SuperSport Park, Dec 26-30

2nd Test: Newlands, Jan 3-7

3rd Test: The Wanderers, Jan 11-15

Pakistan Test record in SA: Played 12, Won 2, Lost 9, Drawn 1

@shockerhess


Sunday Independent

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