After suffering a demoralising series loss in their own desert fortress of UAE a few weeks ago against the Black Caps, Pakistan face a formidable challenge in South Africa’s green bastion of Centurion. The home team has lost just two of their 23 Test matches at this venue - known for its grass banks and equally green 22 yards in the middle.
Dale Steyn will relish the conditions much more than the flat and docile pitches in his last Test series in Sri Lanka. It was a forgettable outing for the legendary fast bowler making a comeback after a career-threatening injury. The 35-year-old is just one short of overhauling Shaun Pollock’s tally of 421 Test wickets to become the most successful South African bowler in history. Not just the personal milestone, Steyn will also have to shoulder much of the fast bowling duties along with Kagiso Rabada as Vernon Philander and Lungi Ngidi are not available due to injuries. Duanne Olivier, a right-arm fast bowler and prolific wicket-taker in the domestic circuit, will be the third seamer.
In hot and humid conditions in Sri Lanka, Steyn toiled hard without much rewards, bagging just two wickets in the two-match series as the Proteas were blanked two-nil. Since then, Steyn has regained his touch and looked venomous in the one-dayers against Zimbabwe and Australia. Even in the recently concluded Mzansi T20 League where his team - Jozi Stars - made it to the final, he bowled with a fiery pace and rhythm.
In the batting department, Hashim Amla will be feeling the heat after enduring an agonisingly long lean patch. In his last 10 Test matches, he has averaged a paltry 23. The most experienced player in the line-up with 119 Test caps, warmed up to the series with a much-needed half-century in a first-class game.
The spotlight will be on opener Aiden Markram who had a fairytale start to his Test career with four hundreds and three half-centuries in his first 10 Test matches. He had a poor series in Sri Lanka but the youngster will be hoping to once again get back to his run-scoring spree in the familiar home terrain.
There are some injury concerns over Theunis de Bruyn and Temba Bavuma and if one of them fail to make the cut, it will open the doors for young Zubayr Hamza. The 23-year-old has been earmarked as one for the future after his impressive showing in the last domestic season where he averaged 69.
Pakistan, currently languishing seventh in the Test rankings, have been dealt a big blow with their most successful bowler in recent times - Mohammad Abbas - ruled out of the first Test. In his absence, the onus will be on comeback man Mohammad Amir and Hasan Ali to lead the fast bowling unit. Young tearaway Shaheen Afridi, who made his debut in the last Test match against New Zealand, will also need to step up.
Amir was dropped by the Pakistan selectors after a poor run in the Asia Cup and missed the series against Australia and New Zealand. But the left-arm seamer worked his way back into the national side, thanks to his impressive performances in the recent domestic matches. None of the Pakistan bowlers, including their trump card Yasir Shah, has played a Test match on South African soil. Both Centurion (4,500 feet above sea level) and Johannesburg (6,000 feet above sea level), located at higher altitude require bowlers to expend a lot more energy during the bowling spells due to thinner air and this can pose a stiff challenge. The track is expected to offer bounce which will come in handy for Yasir Shah.
After the retirement of Mohammad Hafeez, Pakistan have recalled Fakhar Zaman who will open the innings with Imam ul Haq. Imam will be under a lot of scrutiny in this Test match and if he fails to make a big score, he is likely to lose his place to Shaan Masood who is also part of the squad. Both Zaman and Imam will have to work on their defensive technique to counter the swing and seam of the South African new ball bowlers. In the series against New Zealand, Imam was found wanting against deliveries outside his off-stump.
Azhar Ali and Asad Shafiq have been part of the Pakistan squad that toured the Rainbow Nation in 2012-2013 and were blown away 3-0. The experienced duo made hundreds in the last Test match against New Zealand in Abu Dhabi but the Pakistan team management will be looking for more consistency from them.
Pressure will be on Sarfraz Ahmed whose captaincy after the 2-1 loss against New Zealand has come under the scanner.
Taking over the reins from Misbah ul Haq, Sarfraz has presided over two Test series losses in the UAE. In 2017 during the first Test against Sri Lanka, Pakistan failed to chase down a target of just 136 runs while this year they suffered a four-run defeat while chasing 176 against the Kiwis. In these disappointing fourth innings collapses, the captain was guilty of throwing his wicket at crucial junctures of the run chase which has added to his troubles. With his job on the line, Sarfraz will have to lift his own form and inspire his side to prop their performance to create a slice of history.
Pakistan have never won a Test series in South Africa in their previous five visits and if their current form is anything to go by, it will be a tall order to stop the Proteas in their own backyard.