Much like the hike to the Table Mountain which forms an impressive backdrop to the Newlands Cricket Stadium, Sarfraz Ahmed and his men face an uphill battle to stay afloat as the second Test match gets underway in Cape Town.
Pakistan have now lost three of their last four Test matches and all these defeats were due to shambolic batting collapses. Sarfraz, who bagged a pair in the last Test at Centurion, has seen his batting performance nosedive over the last year since taking over the reins from Misbah ul Haq. 2018 was his poorest year with the bat since he became a regular member of the Pakistan team. Not only did he average 24.07 from 15 innings, but his poor shot selection in crunch situations has also brought him under the scanner. Sarfraz had been feeling the heat after the Asia Cup debacle but he had shrugged off the critics with some spirited showing in the ODIs and T20s against Australia and New Zealand. But the Test defeats against New Zealand and the loss in Centurion have meant the voices calling for a change in leadership are growing shriller by the day.
The inconsistent showing by two other leading contenders for the leadership job — vice-captain Asad Shafiq and Azhar Ali — has added to the woes of the Pakistan cricket establishment. Azhar Ali battled a prolonged run drought throughout 2018 before a solid hundred in the first innings in Abu Dhabi. In the second innings when Pakistan were chasing a modest 280, he fell for 5. Known for his prolific scoring abilities and tipped to be the worthy successor of the likes of Younis Khan and Misbah, Azhar did not look in the best of touch in the last Test match. Before the retirement of Misbah and Younis, Azhar averaged 46.86 but since the exit of these legends, Azhar’s average has declined to 32.48 in 11 Tests. Shafiq, too, had to endure a rough 2018 and his strings of poor scores are putting pressure on him to retain his place in the side. He too has been guilty of throwing his wickets to loose shots at crucial junctures of the innings.
With Haris Sohail still nursing a knee injury, Pakistan are unlikely to tinker with their batting order, which means their under-fire batting unit will get one more chance at redemption. The bowling line-up will witness a change with the return of Mohammad Abbas. The right-arm paceman had an astounding start to his Test career, bagging 61 wickets from his 12 Tests. The Newlands wicket has traditionally favoured the spinners, but the grass cover on the eve of the Test match might tempt the Pakistan think-tank to go with a four-pronged pace attack consisting of Mohammad Amir, Hasan Ali, Shaheen Afridi and Abbas. This will mean their talismanic leg-spinner Yasir Shah will miss out but he hardly made any impact in the first Test match.
It has not been a happy homecoming for the Pakistan coach Mickey Arthur who played most of his first-class cricket in South Africa. Along with Sarfraz, he has also found himself in a sticky wicket after the spate of defeats. Not only did he earn a demerit point for showing dissent over an umpiring decision by storming into the room of the television umpire, but he is also said to have had an unpleasant exchange with his own players in the dressing room after the match in Centurion. One-and-a-half years ago, it was the Mickey Arthur-Sarfraz Ahmed leadership combination that helped Pakistan clinch the Champions Trophy, their most significant cricket success in recent times. The two will desperately need to strike the winning formula once again before time runs out.
South Africa have serious selection headaches but they will also likely to unleash a four-man pace battery featuring Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander, Duanne Olivier, and Kagiso Rabada. The lone specialist spinner in the line-up, Keshav Maharaj, may feel hard done by not getting an opportunity to bowl at the most spinner-friendly track among the Test venues. But experts point out that the left-arm spinner did not make any significant contributions in the last three appearances where he has bagged just five wickets. If Maharaj is drafted into the playing XI, he will force a specialist batsman — most likely Theunis de Bruyn — to sit out. But with the South African batting line-up looking brittle, the home team is unlikely to bring in a bowler at the expense of a specialist batsman.
Despite a fighting fifty in the second innings, the batting woes of Hashim Amla are far from over. The 35-year-old will need to come up with some good scores in the remaining matches of the series to silence calls for his retirement. Opener Aiden Markram will also be under the scanner with critics questioning his technique. The left-hander has been trapped leg before in his last four innings.
Currently ranked fourth in the ICC Test rankings behind India, England and New Zealand, the Proteas can leapfrog to the second position if they can blank Pakistan 3-0. South Africa, on their home turf, boasting of a much-vaunted pace arsenal, start as firm favourites to ambush the embattled Pakistan side.