Mark Boucher is back with his team, this time as coach, 14 years after helping South Africa beat Pakistan 1-0 in a two-match Test series. This time though the Proteas are sure to find the going tougher against hosts who were forced to spend over a decade playing their “home” matches in the UAE following a terrorist attack on Sri Lankan players in 2009.
Pakistan might have had its political problems, but it’s a country where cricket is a religion. There has been plenty of controversy attached to its cricket players and teams as well, including jail sentences for match-fixing and the mysterious death of coach Bob Woolmer at the 2007 World Cup.
For Pakistan to be able to play their home matches at home is a terrific step forward for them, and for the cricketing fraternity.
But the South African team that takes to the field in the opening Test in Karachi tomorrow is far removed from that which won its last series on Pakistan soil in 2007. The Proteas on that occasion were a battle-ready side, vying for No1 Test status in the world. Captained by Graeme Smith, their Text XI included Herschelle Gibbs, Hashim Amla, Jacques Kallis, AB de Villiers, Boucher, Dale Steyn and Makhaya Ntini.
The one that takes to the field tomorrow (around 5am SA time) is nowhere near as established, or man for man in the same category of excellence. The likes of Smith, Kallis, Steyn and Amla for instance, and perhaps even Boucher himself, would walk into most people’s World Test Xis of the 21st century. No current player in the South African squad has that kind of career, yet, or form.
It’s certain to be an uphill struggle for the tourists on pitches that are expected to be drier and flatter than you’d elsewhere find in Asia like India and Sri Lanka. That means that while spin will be employed early on, the pitches aren’t expected to turn as dramatically as they do in India and Sri Lanka. For batsmen, concentration and attrition at the crease will be the key.
For the bowlers, there will be long periods when nothing happens. That will test patience and craft to the fullest and it’s going to be hard work for an inexperienced squad. Reverse swing should come into play with the older ball and Kagiso Rabada will be South Africa’s main weapon with both the new ball and the older one.
Those watching on TV might well feel that the match borders on boredom. But that’s to forget that not every Test can resemble a slowed down T20 match and not every Test will finish on day three, like South Africa did when making short work of Sri Lanka at home recently.
This is a completely different ball game.
Pakistan are 11-10 favourites to win the first Test, with South Africa at 16-10 and the draw at 4-1.