The Proteas will play two Tests against Pakistan in the UAE in October and I’m worried things aren’t going to go as well as people expect.
With four ranking places and 33 ratings points between the two Test teams1, and given the Proteas’ 3-0 victory against the same opposition in South Africa earlier this year, most would make the South Africans favourites in the Tests. But these five things concern me.
1. No first-class form
When the first Test starts it will have been eight months since the Proteas last played a Test match. Their only international exposure during that time has been a disappointing showing at the Champions Trophy, four ODI losses out of five in Sri Lanka, and an admittedly morale-boosting but ultimately meaningless T20 series victory in Sri Lanka.
A few players (Philander, Petersen, Elgar) have had stints in county cricket, but conditions in the UK are the cricketing opposite of what they’ll find in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Elgar has at least, and impressively, made big runs recently against Australia ‘A’, but will he even play?
Elgar is the incumbent, but just one score (103* v New Zealand in Cape Town) in eight Test innings won’t be enough to keep out JP Duminy, the man he replaced due to injury. And even though Faf du Plessis has been woeful in green lately – his 85 in the final T20 is more than he managed in the seven innings he played before it combined – he has a Test average of 69 and has earned the right to continue his Test career in the way in which he started it.
2. Injuries to key players
Graeme Smith‘s county season was cut short in May when he injured (again) and then had surgery (again) on his troublesome ankle. The optimists will say the timing was perfect, and Smith is due to be fit in time for Pakistan, but how often does a heavy-set 32 year-old man come back from ankle surgery without complications?
Jaques Kallis has made himself unavailable for the last two tours and, while his “personal reasons” remain his own, it’s hard not to wonder whether he’s carrying an injury or at least working very hard to avoid one.
Dale Steyn was rested for the Sri Lanka tour after a hip injury cut short his Champions Trophy. He should be fit and well in time to lead the attack in the UAE, but it’s another niggle to keep an eye on, especially if he’s going to bowl a lot of overs on two hard, dry decks.
Then there’s ‘How will AB de Villiers’ back hold up?’, ‘Is Amla carrying an injury?’, and ‘Hasn’t Morne Morkel done a lot of bowling lately?’ And from a purely pessimistic point of view it starts to look like the Proteas better take a lot of tape and an extra physio on tour.
3. Scars from Sri Lanka
The Proteas have two months to switch their minds from what happened in England and Sri Lanka to what awaits in the UAE, and hopefully that’s enough time to apply the mental Bio-Oil to the psychological scars incurred. The spin test they failed in Sri Lanka won’t be any easier in the UAE and it’s going to be just as dry and hot for the bowlers in the desert.
As a team another terrible international tournament and a sound beating in Sri Lanka is loose sand upon which to set a confident stall, and as individuals several players have struggled completely out of any sort of form.
Faf du Plessis, as noted by everyone, has been in a patch of form that is more pumpkin than purple this year. Of course he proved us all wrong in the third T20 in Sri Lanka, but his blade had seemed cursed until then. I’m sure he’ll keep his place at six or seven, but I hope for his sake he rediscovers the belief and form that secured him that spot to begin with.
Robin Peterson was dropped for the final ODI in Sri Lanka and not picked for the T20s after taking just two wickets for 166 runs from 30 overs in spin-friendly conditions. He won’t go for 35 runs in an over every day, but it takes an especially thick skin to bounce back from such dismissive, disdainful treatment as he encountered (and has encountered before).
Alviro Petersen hasn’t been a fixture in the Proteas ODI side but he got a chance to show he should be when Amla was injured. He would’ve been hoping for better than 61 runs from three matches, but that was only enough to get him dropped for the last two. Pakistan’s opening bowlers will also remember (or be reminded by their analysts) that Petersen couldn’t get past 27 in five Test innings against them in South Africa at the beginning of the year.
There’s a big difference between ODI and Test cricket, but it’ll take some real mental strength and time spent practising to put the recent failures against the Sri Lankans out of their minds when they’re 22 yards away from Ajmal and friends.
4. Just the one warm-up game
The two Tests are first on the tour schedule, with five ODIs and two T20s to follow. This means the only chance the players will have to get used to conditions will be a single three-day warm-up game against what I presume will be an invitational XI. I understand that nobody likes long, drawn out tours, but it strikes me as risky to hope that three days will be enough to acclimatise to conditions on and above the ground.
The fact that it’s only a two-Test series makes the first one, and the first few days of it, even more important. It would be silly and a shame to be caught cold on day one and two and have to urgently play catch-up thereafter.
Still on the subject of preparation, this will be Russell Domingo’s first series in charge of the Test side. The number one ranked Test side in the world. The side that beat Pakistan 3-0 in Gary Kirsten’s last Test series earlier this year. I don’t know Russell Domingo personally, but he’s made of stern stuff if that kind of expectation doesn’t weigh him down.
5. Pakistan’s record in the UAE
Pakistan don’t often lose Test matches in their adopted home, and they normally win them. Like the 3-0 whitewash they served England in 2012. South Africa probably did well to draw the two Tests they played in 2010, and might even be pleased with similar this time around, because you have to go back to 2002, against Steve Waugh’s Australian juggernaut, for the last and only two Tests (out of 12) that Pakistan have lost in the UAE.
On the other hand…
Here are three very good reasons for the Proteas and their fans to be quietly confident.
The Proteas are the best team in the world
The Proteas have earned the clear water behind them on the ICC Test ranking list by winning their last six Test matches and, more impressively, their last six Test series: 3-0 vs Pakistan (h), 2-0 vs New Zealand (h), 1-0 vs Australia (a), 2-0 vs England (a), 1-0 vs New Zealand (a) and 2-1 vs Sri Lanka (h). It’s been a long time since they last wore their whites, but they’ve been consistently good in them for years.
Not only are the Proteas the number one ranked Test team in the world, they have all the number one ranked Test players too. According to the ICC, Amla, Steyn and Kallis currently top the batting, bowling and all-rounder categories, with de Villiers and Kallis also in the batting top 10 and Philander and Morkel high up the bowling list as well. If Tests were played on paper, South Africa would have the biggest and brightest pen.
Batsmen had success last time
The top order should have happy memories of the last tour to the UAE. AB de Villiers scored what was then the highest individual score by a South African (278*), and there were centuries for Kallis (x2), Smith and Amla as well. In fact, Pakistan could only dismiss the Proteas once in four batting innings, with the other three ending in positive declarations.
Experience and the psychological edge
Of the eleven that will probably start the first Test, seven played in 2010 (Smith, Petersen, Amla, Kallis, de Villiers, Steyn and Morkel). That experience will be invaluable when the going gets tough on a hot afternoon in the desert.
For whatever previous results are worth, they’re stacked in South Africa’s favour. In 2010 the two-Test series in the UAE was shared 0-0, and earlier this year the Proteas won 3-0 at home. As a starting point, there’s confidence to be gained from that.
The last series between South Africa and Pakistan was one-sided and the one before that was a stalemate, but this time there’s a real chance of actual intrigue and excitement in the result. And at an individual level the recent history means there are personal battles to be reignited, for the glory of those concerned and the entertainment of the rest of us watching.
Hopefully the Proteas play some very good cricket in the UAE, and hopefully the contest is entertaining throughout. And as a South African fan, hopefully I was wrong to doubt them.
1 Correct at 6 August 2013 Link