For all the things this away tour is for Pakistan, one thing it is not is timely. They take on, in South Africa, the opponents they have only beaten two times in 12 attempts on away soil, the side that, for the overwhelming part of the past dozen years or so, has been the best Test side in the world. And they do so at a time when Pakistan’s own Test-match form is poorer than it has been at any point since Misbah-ul-Haq took charge of a group of journeymen all the way back in 2010.
Pakistan are coming off a series that would have been a banker at just about any point in their history – a home series against New Zealand. They had only ever lost one of those, back in 1969, and in the Misbah and post-Misbah eras only ever lost one series to anyone in the UAE – a seemingly freakish one-off to Sri Lanka last year. But just weeks ago in their own fiefdom, they lost 2-1 New Zealand, having had their opponents on their knees for lengthy stages of all three Test matches. It was hardly the perfect build-up to South Africa away.
But Azhar Ali isn’t entertaining any thoughts of this series being a mismatch. “The morale of the team is very good,” he said on Monday, two days out from the first Test in Centurion. “Everybody is working really hard and is up for the challenge. It’s a very exciting challenge obviously, which brings lots of opportunities and everyone is looking forward to it.”
Sarfraz Ahmed confirmed Pakistan would stick with Imam-ul Haq and have Fakhar Zaman open alongside him, meaning Shan Masood misses out. The dearth of runs from the openers has been a problem of late for Pakistan, though Fakhar’s return – he scored 160 runs in the only Test he’s played – and Imam’s match-winning 66 in the warm-up game will encourage Pakistan. They will need all the confidence they can muster against arguably the most intimidating challenge in cricket: Dale Steyn and Kagiso Rabada in South Africa with the new ball.
Sarfraz all but disclosed he would bat first if given the choice, given the precarious nature of the pitch by the time the fourth innings rolls around at SuperSport Park. “We have clarity about what we’ll do because we have a coach who has coached in South Africa. If you talk about the history of Centurion pitches the fourth innings is very difficult here. Whoever wins the toss would like to bat first. No one would want to bat in the fourth innings if they’re chasing over 200.”
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Azhar is one of three players who carry bitter experience from the tour of South Africa in 2012-13, but even then he was quick to channel memories of the Test in Cape Town, where Pakistan squandered a winning position by capitulating on the final day. For him, it was simply indicative of Pakistan’s ability to compete and live with South Africa.
“It was my first tour and I learnt a lot of things,” Azhar said. “Me and Saifi (Sarfraz) and Asad [Shafiq] tried to tell everyone who was here the first time how it was. When I came, the guys who were here before told us what to do too. In the last series we were in a position to win the Cape Town match but we couldn’t. I think if we can win those moments we have a chance to win.”
As he said that, Sarfraz interrupted him, quipping it was only Azhar who spoke about that ill-fated tour and certainly not him. As a captain who has faced growing scrutiny about his position, both in a personal and leadership capacity of late, it was a momentary attempt to ease the tension. That will only work long-term should Pakistan enjoy a better opening Test than they did on these shores in 2013, when they were bowled out for 49 in Johannesburg. He was, however, bullish about the strengths of his own bowlers, singling out Yasir Shah as a threat despite the seam-friendly reputation of the grounds here.
“If you talk about South Africa’s Test series against Sri Lanka recently, the pitch was different,” Sarfraz said. “All foreign teams struggle there, just like all Asian teams come to South Africa and struggle here. Here, the conditions are different but we do have a world-class spinner. He took 200 wickets in 33 Tests and we know South Africa haven’t played a top-quality legspinner in three years. So we have an advantage, we have Yasir Shah, and hopefully they will struggle against him.”
He also said he had taken a look at the pitch. “There’s a lot of green grass here. Hopefully they will cut it so it looks better.” There are unlikely to be any guarantees there.