PAKISTAN TOUR OF SOUTH AFRICA 2018-19
Dale Steyn is one short of surpassing Shaun Pollock’s tally of 421 Test wickets and becoming the highest wicket-taker in South Africa’s history © Getty
South Africa versus Australia. There was much hubbub and expectations when the two fierce combatants locked horns against each other in the backdrop of the iconic WACA ground in November 2016. The home side drew the first blood by snuffing out South Africa for a modest 242. With the visitors needing a spark of inspiration, the stage was set for South Africa’s premier fast bowler, Dale Steyn, to spearhead the attack.
The seasoned fast bowler, who had returned from a shoulder injury a few months back, looked rusty and struggled for control. On Day 2, he bowled better and prised out David Warner before there was a cruel twist of fate. After bowling the fourth ball of the 38th over of the innings, the veteran clutched his right shoulder in pain and agony. The coracoid process, “which serves to stabilise” the shoulder joint, had completely broken off. As he returned to South Africa with his shoulder in sling, doubts were cast over his future.
But Steyn is a supreme athlete, tirelessly chasing dreams in his own practice arenas. The fast bowler, who also sustained a heel injury versus India this year, is back and ready to again take his game to an elevated plane when South Africa meet Pakistan in the first Test of the three-match series in Centurion on December 26. He showed glimpses of his old self in the ODI series against both Zimbabwe and Australia. Even in the Mzansi Super League, he steamed into the crease and summoned game-changing spells to end up with 12 scalps at an average of under 20.
Steyn, who is on the verge of surpassing Shaun Pollock to become the highest wicket-taker for South Africa in Tests, will look to achieve the milestone in the Centurion Test. A few doubts would still be lingering over his fitness to bowl long spells in the Test arena but great athletes have that ability to mock at question marks and criticism time and again. Steyn’s impending comeback to the longest format of the game isn’t the only talking point of the series. There is also an air of intrigue surrounding how a couple of rather brittle batting units would perform in testing conditions.
South Africans couldn’t come to grips with the spin-friendly climes of Sri Lanka as they slid to a 0-2 whitewash. Faf du Plessis and Theunis de Bruyn, who cracked a fine hundred in the second Test, were the only two batsmen to accrue more than 100 runs for South Africa in the series. Ottis Gibson, South Africa head coach, however, sounded confident of the batsmen making an impact at home. He said: “There is no concern with regards to them (batsmen). What happened in Sri Lanka has no relevance here even though Pakistan may choose spinners. Here in South Africa, wickets don’t spin as much as they do in Sri Lanka.”
The former Windies pacer also tipped Aiden Markram to succeed in the series. The opener was the top run-getter in the Test rubber against Australia earlier in the year, accumulating close to 500 runs. Unfortunately, Markram struggled to tackle the spin threat posed by Sri Lanka and finished with a mere 40 runs in the series. The elegant opener, known for cracking drives and pulls, would hope for runs to ripple again from his willow in familiar settings.
The hosts also have a few concerns in the bowling department. Vernon Philander, the prolific seam bowler, injured his thumb before the series and was ruled out of the first Test. Meanwhile, Lungi Ngidi, the exciting young quick, will miss close to 12 weeks of action owing to a knee injury. Duanne Olivier and Dane Paterson have been announced as their replacements. Olivier produced impressive spells in the just-concluded first-class game against Titans, snaring seven scalps.
Paterson, the Cape Cobras pacer, has been rewarded for consistently taking wickets at the domestic level over a long period of time. The 29-year-old has 325 scalps at the first class level and is the second highest wicket-taker this season with 30 wickets. Anrich Nortje, the promising fast bowler, who has plucked 24 scalps at an average of just over 21 this season, was the other option.
Pakistan, South Africa’s opponents, also have injury worries. Mohammad Abbas, the redoubtable pacer, who has taken 61 Test scalps at an astonishing average of under 17, will miss the first Test due to a shoulder injury. Shadab Khan, the bowling all-rounder, who last played a Test versus England in Leeds, hasn’t yet recovered from his groin problem. As a result, Pakistan have only five fit bowlers – Mohammad Amir, Hasan Ali, Shaheen Afridi, Faheem Ashraf and Yasir Shah.
On a slightly positive note for the tourists, Fakhar Zaman, the opener, is available for the Boxing Day Test. Fakhar, who aggregated fifties in both innings of his only Test against Australia, has been laid low by a knee injury in recent times. Pakistan have suffered quite a few collapses in the recent past and they would be bolstered by the return of the opener.
It would certainly be a tough task for the visiting side’s batsmen to adjust to the alien conditions of South Africa. To make matters worse, barring Babar Azam (539 runs at 59.88) and to a lesser extent Haris Sohail and Asad Shafiq, most of the batsmen have struggled for form this year. For the tourists to put up a good show, the likes of Azam, Asad Shafiq and Azhar Ali have to notch up tall scores.
Mickey Arthur, the Pakistan coach, exuded confidence over his batsmen making their presence felt in the Test series. “I’ll make a statement now that our young batting group now bat better outside the UAE than they do in the UAE. There’s some very talented young batsmen there. They don’t stand on leg stump anymore. Our batsmen get to off stump, they cover the bounce, they cover the pace and they cover the swing. And they play very well in these conditions,” he said.
Even if we look back at the history, Pakistan have won just two Tests in South Africa. One of them came in Durban in 1998 when Azhar Mahmood played a blinder (132) as Pakistan completed a hard-fought 29-run victory. Maybe the visitors can turn back the pages and draw inspiration from the current bowling coach’s game-breaking innings for the upcoming Test series.