x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

South Africa still the best Test cricket team – home or away

Pakistan drew the two-Test series in the UAE, which is commendable, but South Africa did exceedingly well in difficult conditions.

With a massive partnership in Dubai, Graeme Smith, left, and AB de Villiers, right, proved again why both these batsmen are such integral parts of South Africa’s success in Test cricket over half a decade. Hassan Ammar / AP Photo
With a massive partnership in Dubai, Graeme Smith, left, and AB de Villiers, right, proved again why both these batsmen are such integral parts of South Africa’s success in Test cricket over half a decade. Hassan Ammar / AP Photo

Against many expectations, Pakistan managed to draw the Test series with South Africa. The only other team not to lose their last two “home” series against South Africa since the summer of 2006 is India. Pakistan also drew with them in 2010.

Eight thoughts from the two Tests:

It’s the conditions, stupid

Despite the 99 all out on that abysmal first day in Dubai, Pakistan and South Africa both looked like entirely different sides from the two that played in South Africa earlier this year. In two innings of four, Pakistan’s batting held far better than was expected; in two innings, South Africa’s looked less sturdy than it has for months. The difference in conditions home and away is increasingly pronounced these days, as India’s results in Australia in 2012 and Australia’s results in India in 2013 show. It is why, though, South Africa are the best side in the world, having not lost an away series since July 2006.

Smith is a giant

It is not noted nearly as much as it should, but Graeme Smith is a monumental figure in world cricket and should be remembered as such, particularly in the post-apartheid history of South African cricket. He has had to deal with all kinds of off-field issues, all kinds of internal team issues as well as a wonky administration, he yet is among the most prolific opening batsmen ever and a hugely successful captain. His double hundred in Dubai was the kind of typically cussed response to adversity that has seen him turn his side into the world’s best.

The rise and rise of De Villiers

On Sunday, AB de Villiers overtook teammate Hashim Amla at the top of the Test batting rankings, confirming his place at the very core of South African success. The impression often, with De Villiers batting, is that he thrives as a front-runner, and a technically beautiful one at that: when the going is good, he cashes in.

It is not his fault that he has such an immense top order in front of him, of course. But what is often overlooked is that he is now a bona fide all-rounder, filling two places at once. Mark Boucher has gone but De Villiers has been a barely noticed replacement behind the stumps, as well as Jacques Kallis. He gives South Africa, an amazing range of options and flexibility.

Birthday blues for Kallis

Kallis turned 38 during the first Test in Abu Dhabi and – whisper it – it felt like time might finally be catching up with the finest all-rounder of the modern age.

He scored only 12 runs in the series, picked up no wickets and dropped a catch (though he took four very good ones, too). The batting form will be a worry; in nine Tests in the past year he averages 33. This could just be rust, of course, given that he took plenty of time off before this series and his ODI presence these days is strictly managed.

Nobody smart will rule out a return to form, but at this age, questions come quicker and harder than they would normally.

New openers, old problems

The opening stand between Khurram Manzoor and Shan Masood in the first innings at Abu Dhabi did little to erase embedded pessimism about Pakistan’s latest opening pair. Sure, the stand was a big one, but both had escapes early on. At the time, it was possible to overlook them, but the extent of their failure in the following three innings makes that stand look like the exception rather than the rule. Manzoor was especially poor, making four runs in three innings after his 146.

Combined, the pair made four ducks. Misbah-ul-Haq has rightly asked for patience and the pair should play on, but a little consistency rather than the extremes they have visited – stands of 135, 4, 0 and 0 – might help.

The name is Akmal

Adnan Akmal was unjustly dropped for the series in South Africa earlier this year. He had a solid couple of years with the Test side until then, neat behind the stumps and occasionally useful with the bat. Having returned in Zimbabwe, in this series, Akmal was untidy and costly.

He dropped at least three catches over two Tests, including, unforgivably, De Villiers’s first ball in Dubai – cancelling out, at the least, his own smart run-out of the same batsman in Abu Dhabi.

He is nowhere near the status of brother Kamran, but Pakistan will keep a nervous eye on his performance against Sri Lanka this year.

Little and large

Pakistan’s ability to churn out quality opening bowling pairs carries on in Junaid Khan and Mohammad Irfan. The figures, especially Junaid’s, are modest, but both were hugely impressive through the series.

Irfan was a delight, a smart, skilful bowler beyond just the advantages his height offers and clearly fit and strong enough. He was quick and found the right lengths to bowl to with the new ball. Junaid, meanwhile, offers a handily contrasting threat, skiddier, more swing and as smart.

Umar Gul is on his way back, but with these two in place, he will struggle to re-establish himself in the Test side.

Zippergate

It was not deliberate. No, honestly, the zipper just happened to be precisely where the ball was being rubbed. Ball-tampering need no longer be fussed about, as it is, which is why South Africa need not pretend that the actions of Faf du Plessis were not deliberate.

osamiuddin@thenational.ae