x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Best chance for Pakistan cricketers to impress in South Africa

Steady leadership and a settled side full of promising players are factors that will help Misbah-ul-Haq's on this tour.

Azhar Ali, left, Asad Shafiq, right, and Nasir Jamshed will form the core of Pakistan's batting for years to come. Lakruwan Wanniarachchi / AFP
Azhar Ali, left, Asad Shafiq, right, and Nasir Jamshed will form the core of Pakistan's batting for years to come. Lakruwan Wanniarachchi / AFP

Pakistan arrived in South Africa on Sunday for their first tour to the country in six years and their toughest test in over two years. It is a country where Pakistan have mostly encountered calamity.

Australia has traditionally been the other difficult destination but somehow South Africa has been colder, less unforgiving.

At least in Australia Pakistan can cushion themselves in history; the seminal 1976 Sydney Test win, an electric and popular rivalry through the 70s, the 1992 World Cup, the 1996/97 triangular series win.

Not so South Africa, where what little history there is, is bitter.

There Pakistan's general dysfunction has been stripped bare and put on public display over a succession of tours. There they have disintegrated on the field; they have lost six Tests out of nine, by 324 runs, 259 runs, 10 wickets, an innings and 142 runs, seven wickets and five wickets.

They have disintegrated off it too, and this even when they have won Tests. The first tour they made in 1994/95, for a solitary Test, was a particularly unhappy and dark one.

The first whispers of match-fixing were emerging, centred around Salim Malik, the captain. Two players would retire on the subsequent trip of Zimbabwe as a result; discord was rife within the side.

The stench of corruption had not gone away by the time of the next tour three years later, a bigger mess. Rashid Latif was Pakistan's fourth captain in 10 months coming in but missed the first two Tests with an injury. Pakistan won a Test under Aamer Sohail but lost the last when Latif returned and so too did the man he had replaced, Wasim Akram.

Wasim had been dumped from the squad altogether, unsaid corruption concerns the cause. His return, instigated by the board chairman, prompted the resignation of the chief selector and unsettled the side. The tour had begun disastrously with claims by Saqlain Mushtaq and Mohammad Akram that they were mugged outside a nightclub, which almost derailed the tour (but ultimately delayed the first Test by 24 hours).

The two tours of the 2000s have not been quite as dramatic, but have generated their own chaos.

Wasim was disgruntled and spent in 2002/03, returning home after the ODIs. Shoaib Akhtar did too, claiming knee troubles to go home, but not before lighting up a Bollywood awards show in Durban. Under Waqar Younis Pakistan lost six of the seven internationals they played.

Shoaib loomed large again in 2006/07. He only bowled in one innings, but essentially set up the Test for Pakistan with four wickets, before limping off with a hamstring strain. The next morning television captured a heated argument between him and the late Bob Woolmer, the coach, soon after which Shoaib returned to Pakistan.

This tour is about the best shot Pakistan have at going through a fairly incident-free series (it is neither in the nature of Pakistan, or the covering media for a series to go entirely without controversy of course). The group is as settled as it has been in nearly eight years, a quiet, unstarry leader leading a side of mostly quiet, unstarry men. There are fewer tantrums, fewer tensions.

Pakistan's biggest problem instead will be that they will not have played a Test for seven months when they open at the Wanderers on February 1.

In this age of schedule overload that is an incomprehensible and inexcusable gap, more so for a side whose captain is nearing 39, the most experienced batsman Younis Khan is 35 (and unofficially 37) and whose best bowler Saeed Ajmal is also 35. Test cricket is tough enough as it is, but to take on the world's top side, in their home, with seven months inactivity for preparation? That is half a defeat already.

Otherwise the tourists have the making of a decent fight, far more than South Africa's most recent opponents New Zealand.

Even without Umar Akmal, they have not had a batting order in years with as much young promise as the likely one here: Azhar Ali, Asad Shafiq and Nasir Jamshed should serve Pakistan for years to come.

Unusually it is the bowling that looks flakier. The great strength of their last two years, spin, will play a role but considerably lessened and different. The firmer surfaces have wrecked most Pakistani batsmen but it has gone unnoticed that they have also sometimes neutralised their pacemen, used to pitches with lower bounce.

Junaid Khan, Umar Gul and Mohammad Irfan are potentially a game-changing trio. But Junaid apart, Gul is too moody a bowler (and yet to bowl in a Test in South Africa) and Irfan too fragile. What he could do here is obvious, especially with his natural bounce, but can he last an entire Test?

Instead Pakistan could finally begin to fully rue the black hole from the summer of 2010, the one that sucked in Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir.

There is experience and promise in this attack but how much better they and Pakistan could have been with the banned pair might well hover like a particularly vivid regret.


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