It is not surprising that South Africa has been able to whitewash Pakistan in a three-match Test series. With arguably the best pace bowling attack in the world and home advantage to boot, the Proteas were always going to be too strong an opponent for a Pakistan team still in the process of achieving a stable batting order.
While the eventual result gives the impression of a completely one-sided series, there were passages of play where Pakistan showed real grit and fight. As usual, it was the bowlers who kept the team in the game with their spirited performances, while the batsmen often let the side down.
With the series over and done with, let’s look at the five key takeaways from the contest that will be important for the future of these teams also.
#5 Proteas have the best pace attack
Till some time ago, the question of which team possesses the best pace attack was unresolved. Australia and South Africa seemed to be the two top contenders, while the Indian fast bowling group also staked a strong claim.
But at the end of this series, it is hard to not consider the Proteas team as being the most potent when it came to fast bowlers. The Australians don’t have much claim to the title due to their weak performance at home. And while the Indian pace attack looks better than ever, when you look at the stats and the quality of the South African quartet in this series, it is hard to argue against them.
There is Dale Steyn, an all-time legend leading the way, Kagiso Rabada, arguably the most impressive young pacer in the world, Vernon Philander, with an astonishing record to his name, and now Duanne Olivier, the latest arrival on the scene, who has picked up 24 wickets in the series.
These bowlers combine searing pace, deadly accuracy, discomfiting bounce and the ability to move the ball, both in the air and off the track, to make batting a nightmarish experience for the opposition. There is certainly no other pace battery that can match the firepower of this attack.
#4 The emergence of Duanne Olivier
South Africa seem to have a conveyor belt putting out impressive fast bowlers all the time. Ever since their return to international cricket in the early '90s, they have never been without high-quality pace bowlers.
Last year, it was Lungi Ngidi who emerged as the new bright star in the fast bowling sky of South Africa and in this series, it was Duanne Olivier, who rose to fame with 24 wickets in the series – just one short of the South African record for most wickets in a three-match contest.
What made Olivier so successful was the disconcerting bounce that he got throughout the series. Getting the ball to rise uncomfortably from a length made the batsmen's task very difficult. He also has good speed, a usual attribute of young pacers from the country, and good consistency of line and length. He has all the attributes that should make him a successful fast bowler in conditions that are helpful.
Whether he can be equally effective on less sympathetic wickets is something only time will tell. That’s where we will know whether he is a good bowler or a potential great. For the moment though, Olivier is the latest fast bowling sensation in the world.
#3 The fragility of Pakistan’s batting line-up
When Misbah-ul-Haq and Younis Khan retired from Test cricket, questions were raised about the future of Pakistan’s batting. It was hoped that both Azhar Ali and Asad Shafiq, who were consistent performers and had played a key role in their success under Misbah’s captaincy, would rise to the occasion and fill the void left by them.
Alas, it hasn’t happened. It’s not as if the two haven’t been scoring any runs, but they just haven’t replicated the big scoring prowess that Younis had or the stability that Misbah provided. While Shafiq played a couple of good innings in the series, where he displayed what a good player he is, there wasn’t the consistency and prolificity needed to win matches.
Azhar Ali had a torrid time and would need some big scores in the near future to mend his reputation. However, it would be foolish for the selectors to drop him considering the great contribution he has been making over the years and the experience he brings to the table.
What is even more troubling is the fact that there is controversy in Pakistan regarding the selection of Imam-ul-Haq. It is being widely alleged that his continued presence in the team is due to the influence of his uncle Inzaman, who is part of the selection committee.
But the main issue is the core of the batting line-up – Shafiq and Azhar. Until they start producing big runs, Pakistan will keep struggling.
#2 Silver lining for Pakistan
Amidst all the troubles Pakistan has been having, there were three performers who ensured that the Pakistani fans had something to be optimistic about. Primary among them was the performance of Babar Azam.
Though the young player didn’t score a hundred, there were some highly impressive innings from him that showed the enormity of talent he possesses and reinforced the view that he is destined for greatness with his batting.
What stood out was his incredible attack against Dale Steyn in the series. On more than one occasion, he smashed the South African ace around the ground with a succession of high-quality shots. Even the best batsmen in the world haven’t dominated Steyn like he did.
Shan Masood, whose stock fell drastically after the series in England in 2016, came back with a strong performance to show that he is a quality player and probably the answer to the team’s search for an opening batsman. He certainly seems to have the wherewithal to deal with pace and bounce. Whether he is good enough against swing remains the question.
Last, but not the least, Shaheen Afridi too impressed everyone with his bowling. The 18-year old is mature beyond his years and it is very exciting to think how good he would become with the passage of a little more time.
#1 Quinton’s quality and Steyn’s progress
The way Quinton de Kock bats leads people to believe that he is the typical lower-order dasher. However, the wicket-keeper batsman has played top-quality innings in challenging conditions more than once and has shown that there is genuine quality alongside exciting stroke-play.
His knock in Hobart against Australia in late 2016 and the hundred in the last Test of this series showed how he could excel in somewhat tricky batting conditions also. After a difficult patch of form last year, he is back at his best.
However, one man who is not at his best but getting there quickly is Dale Steyn. While the legendary fast bowler returned to Test cricket last year, he wasn’t making the kind of impact that was expected of him. But in this series, there were unmistakable signs that he is starting to return to his peak.
With speeds in high 140s and consistency of line and length, Steyn was looking close to the bowler we are used to seeing. Other qualities like swing and bounce were also becoming visible, as were the sharpness of tactics.
While he didn’t pick up a bagful of wickets, if he remains fit, it won’t be too long before he starts to. Batsmen of the world, beware!