Pakistan are always newsworthy, often for the wrong reasons. However, when it's for the right reasons, the quality and dramatic brilliance of their play is unmatched in world cricket. The anticipation one experiences whilst waiting for a Pakistan tour of this magnitude, particularly one which pits the current World No 1 against a resurgent Pakistan, is palpable.
I have long contended that Shakespeare would have been bewildered at the plots and subplots that Pakistan as a cricket team manage to construct for themselves, as they create quite breathtaking cricket one moment and then proceed to implode just as quickly the next - one minute sublime, the next desperate.
Consistency will be central to any ambitions they have of success on this tour; it is something they have sought but found difficult to sustain since the end of Imran Khan’s career. In Misbah-ul-Haq, they have wisely supported a calm and understated captain which has allowed him to bring patience and stability to their game.
So South Africa stand in front of them, the world’s No 1 team with the most potent pace attack, and a top order as formidable as Test cricket has seen in the last decade. At the time of writing, Pakistan are having their one outing before the first Test in East London, on one of South Africa's more placid batting wickets. No accident that they have been posted to the coast to begin their tour and are then moved up to the Highveld and altitude to begin the first Test at the Wanderers, on one of the world's quicker and bouncier wickets.
Playing winning cricket is not difficult - you need a mature and experienced leadership group, a knowledge of how to play in different conditions with game-plans and strategy that back this up, and batting and bowling units who can produce the volume of wickets and runs that outstrip the opposition.
Sounds simple, but let’s see how the two teams match up.
Both sides have solid captains in Graeme Smith and Misbah-ul-Haq. However, Smith's runs and experience outstrips Misbah’s.
Misbah though is the right man for Pakistan in terms of leadership, and his challenge will be whether his handling of his resources can make up for the deficit in run production between the two sets of batsmen.
The coaches are both experienced campaigners. Dave Whatmore has done well with Pakistan in recent times, and they look a well disciplined outfit across all formats. Gary Kirsten, having achieved series victories in England and Australia, will be confident going into the second half of the home summer. He will be aware though that he needs more from his team than they produced in Australia; they were outplayed at times, and the last Test victory which brought the series win plastered over their spin issues and injury problems.
Knowing how to play in South African conditions
Only one winner here - home ground advantage for South Africa! Knowledge and experience of playing on the different surfaces is always critical and the ability to play to set game-plans on the bouncy wickets sets apart the two batting units. Batting is more a case of playing with straight and horizontal lines of the blade in South Africa, determined by the higher bouncing ball and lateral movement for the seamers. Discipline and patience are both essentials for success in these conditions, bringing the seam bowlers back for third and fourth spells has to be a part of the Pakistan batting strategy, also allowing them the opportunity of how they will play the left-arm spin of an improved Robbie Pietersen.
When batting at the Wanderers against the quick bowlers, scoring areas are either straight or square, when the bowler gets his length very full, or between extra cover and midwicket - the ball just bounces too high to hit straight off a good length. The game of batsmen from the subcontinent is typically built on wrist play and hit the ball square into space. However, they will need to make sure that the back of a length ball gets put away with the cut and pull.
A comparison of each batting team gives South Africa a comfortable advantage. With Smith, Jacques Kallis, AB de Villiers and Hashim Amla, South Africa have four of the world’s best batsmen at present, backed up by Petersen and Faf du Plessis - that is quite a top six. They offer a large and formidable hurdle to the Pakistani bowlers.
Pakistan can't match this experience or the volume of runs in these conditions. The quality of Taufeeq Umar, Mohammad Hafeez, Younis Khan and Misbah and the two other spots to be filled will be hard pressed. It is though a fantastic challenge for them. Can they outstrip their predecessors here? It is always about opportunity and Misbah and Whatmore will be wondering which of the young batsmen can announce themselves on this tour with a special performance or two.
Secondly, who of the older guard will put up their hands and play innings of such substance that they can set up a Test, win it, save it or bring a series victory home?
The Pakistan bowling unit is mouth-wateringly exciting. I'm already salivating, particularly after watching Mohammed Irfan against India. I'll never forget Wasim Akram's introduction to the viewers on Irfan - tall, bounce but medium-pace. That was my impression from the last time I watched him on television. Bang! Eighteen later Irfan had been charging in bowling 145 kmph and the Indian batsmen were jumping on trampolines to counter his bounce. Akram was having to review the speedometer and we were wondering where the extra 10 kmph had come from, quite a different prospect for a batsman.
For Misbah to be able to choose between Saeed Ajmal and Abdur Rehman and to have the Pakistan equivalent of Joel Garner is quite a thing, that allied with Junaid Khan's pace and swing and Umar Gul with orthodox and reverse swing, this will present South Africa with their most serious batting challenge for quite some time.
Cape Town and Centurion should also offer turn so Ajmal should pose quite a threat. One thing for Pakistan to consider is the ability of the South African batsmen in playing off-spin. They have become very proficient at countering the threat of the off-spinner. Rehman maybe a more dangerous challenge to the top order of right-handers, particularly as the right-arm quicks will make rough for him as the game goes on.
Morne Morkel and Dale Steyn are the best pace duo in the world at present, Vernon Philander has been exceptional, but his body has been letting him down. He has a window of grace because of his performances but he will need to be careful this doesn't close on him. Rory Kleinveldt is an able replacement if Philander is unfit.
The balance or tipping point of the series will inevitably be Pakistan's batsmen. Can they give the bowlers the volume of runs to be able to make a fight of this? If they can, then we are in for some unforgettable cricket. As always with Pakistan, fasten your seat belt, it could be a bumpy ride!
(Richard Pybus is the coach of the Bangladesh side. Earlier, he has coached Pakistan and Middlesex as well. The above article is reproduced with permission of PakPassion.net)
First Published: January 31, 2013, 8:25 am