Struggling Pakistan aim to break-through lion’s den of criticism

Proteas lead three-match series one-nil, after winning first Test by six wickets

Struggling Pakistan aim to break-through lion’s den of criticism PHOTO: Reuters

Pakistan’s defeat in the first Test against South Africa in Centurion — more or less — followed a predictable narrative but the dressing room controversy on the second day of the match left the side at a low ebb.

With Pakistan having enough problems on the field, it was unfortunate to see that all the headlines were about the things which happened off it.

But with the second Test beginning on January 3 in Cape Town, Pakistan have a chance to set things right albeit in challenging circumstances.

At a time when there is enough pessimism to choke a horse, South Africa's pace battery — strengthened by the likely return of Vernon Philander — would seem nothing less than four horsemen of the apocalypse, for the visiting batsmen.

This leaves Pakistan with no option but to break-through the lion’s den of criticism by clutching on to whatever straws of positivity — although there were not many — from the first Test and more importantly a fearless attitude. 

When it comes to batting, it all starts with the openers as they have to set the tone and bat out the majority of the new ball overs. This helps avoid the risk of their already under-pressure middle-order from being thrown in the thick of things, right from the outset.  

Zaman's decision making came under criticism during the first Test but his youthful ardour can provide much-needed gallantry at the top of the order - something which has been scarce in quantity during Pakistan's previous tours. 

The Mardan-born opener needs to understand that he has to be more selective in his shot-making and adopt a more cautious approach. With his naturally aggressive style of batting, it is inevitable that the runs will come for him once he is well set out there in the middle.

It goes without saying that the likes of Asad Shafiq and Azhar Ali will be under the quash after failing to deliver in the previous Test — plus their general dip in form since the recent past.

Shafiq has fond memories from this venue bearing in mind his 111-run knock in the first innings — back in 2013.

On the other hand, Azhar — whose average of 21 is the worst in South Africa as compared to other places where he has played Test cricket (minimum of three Tests) — has the ideal opportunity to come up with the goods and prove his critics that he is much more than just a walking wicket in these conditions.

Opener Imamul Haq and one-down Shan Masood need to build on the half-centuries they scored as well as the confidence, during the second innings in Centurion.

Perhaps the best thing about Pakistan’s batting in the first Test was middle-order batsman Babar Azam’s 71-run knock in the first innings — a batting display which made him look at home with stardom.

Azam had a good year in the Whites during 2018 and Pakistan would expect him to continue the same in 2019. 

If South Africa pacer Kagiso Rabada’s pre-match statement is taken into consideration, the track at Newlands will spark a good tussle between bat and ball.

The wicket quite possibly would be on the slower side which could make batting slightly easier for the visitors, while also offering some help to the spinners.

“It looks like a good wicket. Whenever I have come here it has always been a good contest between bat and bowl,” said Rabada, who claimed six wickets during the Boxing Day Test against Pakistan.

Although the Men in Green would be hoping that the pitch stays true to its history with more assistance for the spinners — which brings leg-spinner Yasir Shah into the game.

If Pakistan can somehow take the game deep in Cape Town, they stand a better chance of dismantling South Africa’s batting lineup through Shah’s wizardry.

But this leaves Pakistan with an interesting dilemma as they will have to sacrifice one of the pacers — who played in the first Test — in order to accommodate returning Pakistan pacer Mohammad Abbas. It is likely that one of Shaheen Shah Afridi or Hasan Ali will make way for the right-arm medium-pacer.

Abbas’s inclusion in the side will add more potency to Pakistan’s bowling armoury as the host will be wary of his nagging line and length — a trait which has made him one of the best in the business.   

With Amir, who had a good outing in the first Test, to supplement Abbas in the fast-bowling department — Pakistan are well-equipped to rip through the Proteas batting lineup if they are on song.

Once again the spotlight will be on Pakistan captain Sarfraz Ahmed as he looks to guide his team through this stiff period and make a resounding comeback in the series.

The skipper’s own batting form is also a matter of concern — as he has only went past the 50-run mark twice in his last 17 Test innings — something which he needs to address and address quickly.

Pakistan’s luck with, both, toss and results has not been particularly great when it comes Newlands as they have never won the toss or the match — on all three previous occasions they played a Test here — but they would be hoping that this changes with the turn of the year.