South Africa vs Pakistan 2018-19: Can Mercurial Pakistan challenge Resurgent Proteas?
Another overseas tour bringing great expectations, another chance to create history, but its easier said than done. No Asian side has yet beaten South Africa in a Test series at their home and there is a reason for it, Its one of the toughest place to bat, especially for Asian sides. Among all Test hosting countries (excluding Ireland obviously), South Africa has the lowest batting average of 28.20.
From swing and seam movement to pace and bounce, South African conditions are known to Test batsman's technique completely and then, there are cracks, which can produce some variable bounce as well, Therefore it's not going to be easy for Pakistan to beat South Africa on their own soil, but as India showed earlier this year in freedom trophy 2017/18, there are few chinks in the armour of Proteas as well, which Sarfraz and company can certainly exploit to their advantage to challenge the Proteas and make it tough for them.
AB-less South Africa
It takes time to fill an AB de Villiers' size hole. They have already played some series without him when he went into self-imposed exile but this is officially the first time Proteas are going to enter on home turf for Test matches since AB de Villiers' retirement. In the series in which AB didn't participate, South Africa had some mixed results.
They defeated Aussies in Australia and thrashed Kiwis in both home and away series but were humbled by England at home. In their last series in Sri Lanka, which was also their first Test assignment since AB's retirement, they were blanked by the young Sri Lankan side.
Hashim Amla's continuous downfall
There was a time when Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers were the backbones of Proteas batting line-up but right now one of them has taken retirement and the other is not the same batsman anymore. Hashim Amla's inconsistency in recent years has hurt South Africa more than anything, even more than AB's absence.
He is averaging just 36.35 in the last two years which is very ordinary going by the standards of Amla and signs are clear that he is in the twilight of his career.
Too much dependence on openers and Faf
South Africa is a difficult place to start your inning and too much dependence on openers can become a cause of trouble for South Africa and Pakistan will know that getting the opposition's openers out early will literally mean job half done.
Dean Elgar, Aiden Markram, and Captain Faf du Plessis have done the bulk of the scoring for Proteas in the last two years. They are the only three Proteas players (besides AB obviously) to average over 40 in the last 2 years.
The absence of Ngidi and Philander
Injuries to Vernon Philander and Lungi Ngidi has surely put a dent in the bowling prowess of Proteas. In the absence of these two, the burden of getting the job done will surely increase on the young shoulders of Proteas Speedster Kagiso Rabada although he will be accompanied by experienced Dale Steyn.
Dale Steyn has recently made a comeback from a long injury lay-off and there will be some questions mark over his long-term ability to bowl in the Test format. Captain Faf du Plessis will surely look towards these two to get the bulk of the wickets until the return of Vernon Philander. Left-arm spinners Keshav Maharaj will try to bowl economical spells to support the pacers.
The in-form bowling attack of Pakistan
All rounded Pakistan bowling attack will be aiming to Test the Proteas batting line-up. Pakistan did lose the home series to New Zealand but the bowling attack bowled well throughout the series. Mesmerizing Mohammad Abbas will definitely be missed for the boxing day Test because he has been the trump card for captain Sarfraz Ahmed since his debut.
His average is under 17 in his short career till now. He is the kind of bowler who can definitely make the most of the conditions. People have compared Muhammad Abbas with Muhammad Asif but interestingly more close comparison can be made with Vernon Philander. Modus operandi of both pacers is the same. Both try to pitch the ball in the good length area and extract seam movement in both directions.
Both had a great start to their Test careers. Sadly both of them are injured and out of boxing day Test match but cricket lovers will be looking forward towards their duel in the later matches of the series.
In the absence of Abbas, Hasan Ali will lead the bowling attack in the boxing day Test. Hasan Ali has certainly come into his own in Test cricket. In the last series, he picked up his first five-wicket haul. His great seam position will assist him to get some swing and extricate seam movement off the pitch. His skiddy nature of bowling will be quite helpful on South African pitches.
Emerging Shaheen and resurging Aamir
Mohammad Aamir is making a comeback after getting dropped from the national team due to a poor run of form. Aamir will look to swing the ball, in addition to getting some movement from the good length area. It will be interesting to see his bowling pitch map because, in the past, he has been found guilty of bowling too short sometimes, especially in helpful conditions.
Cricket experts have often said that the reason Aamir gets more plays and misses than edges is that his length has been too short and line a bit too wide to get the edge of the bat. Hasan Ali and Mohammad Aamir will be well supported by another left armer, The emerging Shaheen Shah Afridi.
Both left-armers are quite different from each other. Shaheen is the tallest of the lot and will get some good bounce, along with lateral movement off the pitch in both directions, which can be discomforting for the Proteas batters. Faheem Ashraf will also be the welcome addition to this bowling attack. Pakistans knows well what he brings to the table from their experience of playing him in England last year.
Then, there is Yasir Shah. Those who saw Pakistan vs New Zealand Test series 2018 in the UAE, will know that he is bowling his best at the moment. Proteas were clueless against the Sri Lankan spinners in their last series, although it was in Sri Lanka, it will be interesting to see how they will tackle the red-hot Yasir Shah.
Test for Pakistani batsmen
Mickey Arthur said Pakistani Batsmen plays better outside UAE than in UAE, which implies that he believes Pakistani batters play seam and swing better than spin, maybe the reason behind his thought is the dismal batting performance in UAE combine with domestic pitches which offer more seam movement than spin. Also in the recent UK tour, Pakistani batsmen performed better than what was expected from them. But more than Swing and Seam it will be pace and bounce that will trouble the Pakistani batsmen
Pakistani batsmen will know what they are going to get in the Test series. They will know that their technique will be scrutinized by the Proteas pace attack. It will be absorbing to see how they will counter the thunderbolts delivered by Rabada and company. Sarfraz Ahmed will be counting on experienced Azhar Ali and Asad Shafiq to shepherd the young batting line up. Azhar Ali is Pakistan's best batsman.
In their last tour to Australia in 2016, where conditions are quite similar, Azhar scored some heavy runs, including a double hundred in boxing day Test match, and averaged around 82 in the series, therefore as a senior batsman, his performance will be vital for Pakistan. Asad Shafiq also scored hundred in Cape town in their last tour, which is also the venue of the second Test.
After a tough start to his Test career, Babar Azam has certainly started to find his feet in Test cricket. He is averaging almost 60 in the year 2018 and after some nervous nineties, he finally scored his first Test hundred vs NZ in the last series. It will be gripping to see how he will perform in South Africa because he is one of the few batsmen in the Pakistani line up who are comfortable to play the short ball.
Opening problems for Pakistan
It will be interesting to see who will partner Imam ul Haq open in the boxing day Test match. If Pakistan plays Faheem Ashraf then it will be Azhar Ali who will move up the order, although it will not be the first time. If Pakistan goes without Faheem Ashraf than the choice will be between Fakher Zaman and Shan Masood.
Another cause of concern for Pakistan is the ability of Imam ul Haq to cope with the short ball. After getting hit on the head by Lockie Ferguson in the ODI series he hasn't been the same batsman. In the third Test of the last series, he was hit by a Trent Boult bouncer again and got out on the next delivery playing an eight stump ball, nicking to slip. South African think tank will surely have taken note of this recent problem of Imam ul Haq.
So what will happen? Will Proteas roll over Pakistan to a 3-0 victory or Pakistan will put up a fight? How both teams will cope with the unavailability of lead pacers? How will Sarfraz perform with pressure mounting on his captaincy and place, after the home series loss against the Kiwis? How will Pakistan try to negate the more regularly occurring batting collapses? How will Proteas response if Pakistan starts putting decent scores on the board? We will surely get answers to all these questions in the coming weeks.