CENTURION: Pakistan captain Sarfraz Ahmed has pinned his hopes on ace leg-spinner Yasir Shah in the South Africa Test series that starts at the SuperSport Park in Centurion from Wednesday.
Sarfraz, while addressing a pre-match media conference on Tuesday, remarked Yasir looms the danger for the hosts who havent played a top-quality leg-spinner in three years.
Yasir, who has claimed 37 Test wickets in just 10 innings this year, has been a revelation with the ball for Pakistan, especially on the dry surfaces in the United Arab Emirates. The Asian side now moves away from spinning wickets to seam-friendly conditions in South Africa, but Sarfraz remains confident of Yasir making a dent in the home sides batting line-up.
If you talk about South Africas Test series against Sri Lanka recently, the pitch was different. All foreign teams struggle there, just like all Asian teams come to South Africa and struggle here. Here, the conditions are different but we do have a world-class spinner, said Sarfraz. He took 200 wickets in 33 Tests and we know South Africa havent played a top-quality leg-spinner in three years. So we have an advantage, we have Yasir Shah, and hopefully, they will struggle against him.
Pakistan do not have a very good record against the Proteas in South Africa, winning just two of 12 Tests there. They have succumbed to nine defeats in the remaining 10 games, drawing just one. But Sarfraz is confident ahead of the tour despite these numbers, saying that Pakistan have a coach who has coached in South Africa.
We have clarity about what well do because we have a coach [Mickey Arthur] who has coached in South Africa. If you talk about the history of Centurion pitches, the fourth innings is very difficult here, he pointed out. Whoever wins the toss would like to bat first. No one would want to bat in the fourth innings if theyre chasing over 200.
Top-order batsman Azhar Ali, too, exuded self-assurance ahead of the three-Test series and believes it is a very exciting challenge.
The morale of the team is very good, he insisted. Everybody is working really hard and is up for the challenge. Its a very exciting challenge obviously, which brings lots of opportunities and everyone is looking forward to it.
Pakistan will look to bounce back after the recent setback against New Zealand in the Test series in UAE. Sarfraz and his team, who were almost invincible in their adopted fortress, were beaten 2-1 by an inspired effort from Kane Williamsons Black Caps.
Mohammad Abbas, the spearhead of their pace battery, has been ruled out of the Boxing Day Test with a shoulder injury. Right-arm quick Hasan Ali, teenage starlet Shaheen Shah Afridi and veteran Mohammad Amir will take up the seam bowling mantle.
The batting unit will rely heavily on the likes of Haris Sohail, Babar Azam and Asad Shafiq, Pakistans leading run-scorers in Tests this year.
Moreover, Sarfrazs captaincy will come under scrutiny in the testing away series, and the playing XI he chooses as well as the bowling changes he makes will be dissected. He passed his first Test on the tour, though, winning the tour game against Cricket South Africa Invitation XI with a six-wicket margin in Benoni.
South Africa, on the other hand, go into the series knowing that a 2-0 victory in the three Tests will help them claim the No.2 spot on the Test rankings, going ahead of England by decimal points.
Should they sweep the series 3-0 and India lose their remaining two Tests of their ongoing series against Australia, South Africa will be just a point behind top-ranked India.
Apart from the milestones the team will be vying for, there is a special individual record waiting for Dale Steyn. The veteran paceman, with 421 Test scalps, is tied with the retired Shaun Pollock as South Africas leading wicket-taker in Tests. Recurrent injuries and prolonged hiatuses have kept him on the fringes of the sport over the last three seasons, and the long-awaited record has turned into a bogey.
With Vernon Philander and Lungi Ngidi out with injury, Steyn will be at the forefront of the South Africa pace attack. The experienced campaigner will be gunning to reach the magical figure, to reaffirm his position as one of the greatest cricketers produced by South Africa.
Kagiso Rabada, No.1 on the ICC Test rankings for bowling, will spearhead the home attack alongside Steyn. The seamer, with his pace, will be the most difficult-to-parry bowler for the visiting batsmen.
Hashim Amla, Quinton de Kock and Dean Elgar, along with skipper Faf du Plessis, bring experience and solidarity to the South African batting line-up. Newcomer Theunis de Bruyn, who had a fruitful tour of Sri Lanka, will be keen to follow up on his hundred in Asia with a strong performance at home. Underperforming batsmen like Aiden Markram and Temba Bavuma will also look to regain their form in conducive conditions.
Coach Ottis Gibson and du Plessis will have to decide whether to play three seamers, with Duanne Olivier in line for a sixth test appearance, and spinner Keshav Maharaj, allowing them to field an extra batsman, or hand a first cap to Dane Paterson.
The latter option would give the team a long tail with Rabada having to bat at number seven, a role he has never played before.
South Africa cancelled their training session at the ground on Christmas Day, meaning the next time du Plessis sees the pitch will be on Wednesday, just before the start of play.
I like clarity when preparing for a Test at home, to help with the options for the team for instance, do we want to play four seamers, especially when sub-continent teams get here, the home side captain said on Tuesday. But the nature of the pitch, especially after what happened last year, you definitely need a spinner on this wicket.
While the temperatures in Centurion will remain warm in the first two days, the forecast suggests thunderstorms on the three remaining days of the Test.
SOUTH AFRICA: Dean Elgar, Aiden Markram, Hashim Amla, Faf du Plessis (captain), Temba Bavuma, Theunis de Bruyn, Quinton de Kock, Zubayr Hamza, Keshav Maharaj, Kagiso Rabada, Dale Steyn, Duanne Olivier, Dane Paterson.
PAKISTAN: Imam-ul-Haq, Shan Masood, Azhar Ali, Haris Sohail, Asad Shafiq, Babar Azam, Sarfraz Ahmed (captain), Faheem Ashraf, Mohammad Amir, Hasan Ali, Yasir Shah, Shaheen Shah Afridi, Fakhar Zaman, Mohammad Rizwan,
Umpires: Sundaram Ravi (India) and Bruce Oxenford (Australia).
TV umpire: Joel Wilson (West Indies).
Match referee: David Boon (Australia).