x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Coach Waqar looks beyond trio on trial

'Hosts' admit the Pakistan squad misses Butt, Asif and Aamer, who are suspended and may never play again.

The South Africans prepare at the Zayed Cricket Stadium in Abu Dhabi last night.
The South Africans prepare at the Zayed Cricket Stadium in Abu Dhabi last night.

ABU DHABI // The idea that Pakistan's series against South Africa in the UAE represents the start of a four-month building phase until the World Cup seems somewhat fanciful, given their self-destructive tendencies.

The most combustible side in world cricket would no doubt be grateful for a period of quiet consolidation after their volatile summer in England.

However, planning for the future is something which just does not happen in Pakistan cricket. Even as they prepared for tonight's opening Twenty20 (T20) international at the Zayed Cricket Stadium in Abu Dhabi with a squad light on experience and quality, their thoughts were elsewhere.

Their future prospects are hanging on the result of a hearing into the alleged involvement in spot-fixing of three of their leading players, Salman Butt, Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Aamer, later this week.

Despite the uncertain backdrop Waqar Younis, their coach, believes they can still be competitive, both tonight and when the World Cup begins in India in February.

"It is difficult, but it is not impossible," Waqar said yesterday. "We are trying our best to make sure whatever resources we have will deliver the goods.

"If they come back it will be a pleasure to have them back. We are just trying to compensate with other players, but it is not easy.

"Honestly speaking, it is not easy because we have lost three major players, not just from the squad, but from the XI. They were really fine players, but that is the way it is. It is unfortunate that this whole thing happened and we don't really have them any more."

Waqar pointed to the comeback of Younus Khan, the former captain who returns to the 50-over and Test sides after having a suspension overturned, as a reason for optimism ahead of this series.

Pakistan hope the presence of Younus will complement the leadership of Misbah-ul-Haq, the Test captain, and Shahid Afridi, the man in charge of the limited-overs side.

Afridi, the darling of the UAE's Pakistani expatriate community, is happy the focus can now return to the pitch following the recent off-field travails. "Looking ahead to the World Cup, we all know how important this tournament is for us, because wins are what keep our morale high," Afridi said.

"We are focused on playing good cricket here. As a professional you should be able to put all that behind you. When we are at the ground we all have one goal and that is to try our best cricket."

The Pakistanis are not the only ones impatient to get started. Graeme Smith, South Africa's opening batsman, hopes the sides can start to restore the watching public's faith in the international game.

"It is hard to predict the future, but I would really like to think this series will be played in the right spirit and that cricket will make the headlines on the field for the right reasons," he said.

While Pakistan await a decision that could deprive them of three of their finest players for good, South Africa look forward to welcoming back two of their senior men.

Dale Steyn, their leading strike bowler, and Jacques Kallis, the veteran all-rounder, have both been out of action since the Champions League T20 last month.

Steyn has been hindered by a bad back, while Kallis has been suffering with a neck injury.

Neither is assured of a place tonight, and if Kallis does play, it will be solely as a batsman.

However, both should return at some point during the tour of the UAE, which Johan Botha, the T20 captain, feels is a key series as they build towards next year's 50-over World Cup. "It will be a good gauge for us to play Pakistan," Botha said.