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Cricket: Meeting the African Lions in their den

January 28, 2013

Anumbing clean sweep was well and truly a writing on the wall when Misbah was out there with Umer Akmal in the freezing cold of Kotla, chasing India’s low score of 167. But notions of this much-fancied whitewash soon vanished, courtesy a signature Pakistani batting choke.

Once more the whole order went down like dominoes. Pakistan certainly made a mess of the run chase by not attacking enough, thus keeping the Indians always in the hunt.

Nevertheless, buoyant by the thumping series triumph against the archrivals, the next destination for Pakistan is South Africa. With the Proteas at their best after thumping both the Aussies and the Englishmen in their homes, and now a mockery of the Kiwis, it will be nothing less than dating the lions in their den. South Africa has never been a tour to look forward to for Pakistani batsmen. Even the best of Pakistani batting orders in the past have felt the heat of exaggerated bounce and lively pace of South African wickets.

Over the years, like Australia, the tours to South Africa brought a lot of stern technique testing, shaky confidence levels and obviously many bruised egos. Even two modern geniuses Inzamam and Yousuf have very modest record on the South African soil, failing to churn up even a single three digit score.

This time round, the South African side has a much more balanced attack. In the past, they lacked quality in the third seamer, with no disrespect to Andre Nel and Fanie de Villiers, but now they have Vernon Philander to back up ultra-exceptional Steyn and Morkel. All three have something different to offer. Unarguably the best pacer in the world right now, Steyn swings it both ways at a deadly pace. Morkel tests with his back of the length stuff at horrifying pace and bounce. Philander is steadier and slower, but no less in potency. As a bowler, he is always at the batsmen with his relentless lengths and posing serious questions.

With the rollicking Indian batting a history now, South Africa certainly has a claim on the best batting order too. Probably the reason, they are sitting pretty at the top, they have the most potent pace attack to go with the most reliable middle order of world cricket. Amla is scoring big all over the world; Kallis is going his merry way and with de Villiers keeping the wickets, they relish the luxury of playing an extra batsman at the seventh position.

Pakistan will also go for the African Safari well equipped with pace — so refreshing after an overdose of spin! Irfan must be licking his lips already after doing so well on soulless Indian tracks. With his gigantic height, he will certainly test the top orders. Junaid has bowled his heart out on dead wickets, in my view, far better than what Amir did in the Sub-continental conditions. It will be really interesting to see him bowl for the first time on juicy tracks.

Everyone knows Gull will be right up with his game as the leader of the pack. It would not be a bad option to pick Wahab and Asad Ali as the backup pacers rather than going with the aging Cheema. Ajmal and Hafeez give Pakistan an edge over their counterparts as a bowling unit. There might not be much help for the finger spinners in South Africa.

For sure, the most deciding factor of the series would be the Pakistani batting, brittle as always but oozing with potential and talent. For a change, Pakistan possesses a settled opening pair, Jamshed might have scored heavily but at the moment, it is mighty difficult to 'un-pair' Taufeeq and Hafeez in Tests. Both look settled in their positions and performing well. The middle order is a nice amalgam of youth and experienced players. Azher and Asad are men ready to take over the reins of Pakistani batting.

The dipping fortunes of captain Misbah’s batting are a matter of concern. A lot will depend upon Younis Khan, he is the only man in the middle who has played Tests in South Africa. He will be the key to Pakistan’s chances, with his ability to stand at the wickets when required. They all have the technique and the temperament, but how they adapt to alien conditions and the extra bounce remains to be seen.

Pakistan has to attack the Proteas’ pacers. The batsmen must put something on the board to give the talented bunch of pacers a chance to attack. A good bowling attack is of no use without a steady batting order as seen in the horrifying summer of 2009 in England. Nonetheless, a jaw-dropping blockbuster is storming our way. i