Pakistan’s lead-up to this tour can be described as chaotic at best. While most major teams are finalising their preparations for the World Cup, Pakistan cricket’s internal discord continues to divert attention off the field. The captain and coach have complained of not being consulted over team selection, the board has warned the captain and defended not seeking the coach’s opinion, while former cricketers have hit out at the rift between players and the board. Such negativity augurs badly for a team still attempting to recover from the spot-fixing controversy and working towards restoring faith in its fans.
Amid the negativity, however, there are a few things to look forward to. Discarded for most of the year, Misbah-ul-Haq has been catapulted into the role of Test captain and won his place back in the limited-overs squads as well. Things have come a full circle for Younis Khan, who, after being banned indefinitely by the board for disciplinary reasons, has been drafted back in the side.
The return of experienced heads has strengthened the batting department. But the bowling, shorn of two quality seamers who have been provisionally suspended by the ICC, will look to Umar Gul for leadership. The series kicks off with a couple of Twenty20 internationals, and Pakistan, who have been short of match practice and possibly struggling for focus, could just be facing a better team. Their captain, Shahid Afridi, however was not too concerned by the absence of Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir. “We know we are without two of our best bowlers, but we still have ample talent to counter South Africa who are a very good side in the shorter form of the game.”
South Africa have been spared the distractions. They have kick-started their preparations for the World Cup by easily overcoming Zimbabwe at home. South Africa’s batting, led by Hashim Amla, has been prolific and they will welcome back Dale Steyn and Jacques Kallis, who were rested against Zimbabwe. Graeme Smith has said that controversies may not necessarily have a bearing on Pakistan’s performance but, with a strong and stable side at their disposal, South Africa have an excellent chance of upstaging their opponents in their home away from home.
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South Africa: WWWWL
Watch out for…
Misbah-ul-Haq: He last represented Pakistan in the World Twenty20 this year and it will be interesting to see how he handles the pressure of an international return, with the burden of a Test captaincy in the back of his mind. Lucrative returns in domestic cricket, experience and his reputation as a solid middle-order batsman have prompted the Pakistan board to repose faith in his abilities, especially in the absence of Mohammad Yousuf’s stability in the middle order.
David Miller: A hard-hitting middle-order batsman, Miller has already made an impression in international cricket with strike-rates of 146.80 and 132.29 in one-dayers and Twenty20s respectively. The South Africa selectors will consider him a potential World Cup candidate, and after facing significantly weaker opponents like West Indies and Zimbabwe, Miller faces his first major challenge against a competitive albeit depleted Pakistan attack.
It will be interesting to see if South Africa include all the players they rested against Zimbabwe, for the tour opener. Morne Morkel injured his ankle early in the Zimbabwe series and missed a few games. Will he be brought back too?
South Africa (possible): 1 Graeme Smith, 2 Loots Bosman, 3 Jacques Kallis, 4 Colin Ingram, 5 AB de Villiers (wk), 6 JP Duminy, 7 David Miller, 8 Albie Morkel, 9 Johan Botha (capt), 10 Robin Peterson, 11 Dale Steyn.
Gul and Shoaib Akhtar will lead the attack with Abdul Razzaq and offspinner Saeed Ajmal as the support options. In the absence of Kamran Akmal, Zulqarnain Haider takes over wicketkeeping duties while Imran Farhat is likely to open with Shahzaib Hasan.
Pakistan (possible): 1 Imran Farhat, 2 Shahzaib Hasan, 3 Umar Akmal, 4 Fawad Alam, 5 Misbah-ul-Haq, 6 Shahid Afridi (capt), 7 Abdul Razzaq, 8 Zulqarnain Haider (wk), 9 Umar Gul, 10 Shoaib Akhtar, 11 Saeed Ajmal.
Stats and trivia
•The Sheikh Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi will be hosting its first Twenty20 international between two Test-playing nations. The two matches that have been played here – Afghanistan v Scotland and Kenya v Netherlands – were quite low-scoring, with an average score of 127.75.
•Two of the three Twenty20 matches played between the teams have come in the World Twenty20, in 2009 and 2010, both won by Pakistan. South Africa won the first game between the two sides, in 2007.
“Playing Pakistan is always a great challenge and they knocked us out in two major Twenty20 matches.”
Johan Botha has not forgotten his side’s reversals against Pakistan in two consecutive World Twenty20s
“My players are professional and have put all the controversy behind them.”
Shahid Afridi wants to focus on the task ahead