This should be a good one.
Pakistan come into this series with perhaps two of their best years in the Test format behind them, full of confidence following their clean sweep of England twelve months ago and the recent ODI success in India.
South Africa will be searching for their sixth Test series win in succession. Vernon Philander is back into the team after missing the second Test against New Zealand, completing South Africa’s Holy Trinity of pace bowlers.
Pakistan will most likely go into the Wanderers tomorrow with a three pronged quick attack; the wiles of Umar Gul will be accompanied by the prodigious Akram-esque skills of Junaid Khan and the monstrous Mohammed Irfan. It will be some sight when Irfan bowls, at seven foot and an inch tall, he is a beast of a man; though it is likely Morkal will garner more bounce from the South African pitches as Irfan bowls with a slightly lower arm.
Whereas the fast bowling battle will be fascinating, the series will rest on whether the Pakistani batting is up to the challenge of holding of the Saffers’ attack. It has been more than two years since they’ve played on surfaces conducive to lateral and sideways movement. Azhar Ali at three and Asad Shafiq at six are the future of the Pakistan batting line up, and (Ali in particular) have so far displayed deep reserves of patience and inner grit that has been absent in Pakistani batsmen since the demise of Inzamam and Mohammad Yousuf. Younis Khan and Misbah sit snugly in-between the two: much will be asked of them as the two senior men in the team.
Misbah has become the most important man in Pakistan cricket; he has led the team shrewdly and with dignity. Hafeez seems to be the man next in line to captain the team and his game has progressed immeasurably since Misbah took over the captaincy. With the exception of the man with the gloves, team selection has been consistent and Pakistan come to South Africa with an air of harmony that has rarely been the case in previous eras.
This settled Pakistan side will expect to give the South Africans a battle and they do hold a possible trump card in the guile and virtuosity of Saeed Ajmal. The finest off spinner in World cricket (don’t ask Mr Swann) does not have an overwhelming record away from the sub-continent (and Middle East) but South African pitches tend to break up in the latter stages of a Test and keep the slow men in business; with temperatures of over 35 degrees centigrade during the South Africa – New Zealand ODIs, if the Pakistani batsmen can bat long, Ajmal could have enough room to weave his spell over South Africa’s untested lower-middle order and long tail.
Nonetheless, it is important to recognise the strength of this South African Test side: Graeme Smith will be skippering in a Test for the 100th time (99th for South Africa: thanks ICC Super Series gimmicky thing!) and the home crowd will be baying for a victory. This will surely buoy Steyn and co to ramp up the aggression and test the Pakistani’s temperament to the extreme. Robin Petersen has bowled well since he was recalled and a middle order of Amla, Kallis, De Villiers and Du Plessis really is the best any cricket fan has seen since the Indian side of the mid-2000s.
South Africa are undoubted favourites and a victory in this Test series would truly confirm them as Test number one. If the Pakistani team were to triumph it would rank among their greatest achievements in the Test format. I want to reserve judgement on a series outcome until after the first Test, so watch, listen and indulge in the first major Test series of what should be a very exciting year of cricket.