From injury blows, wrong selection calls and shambolic batting collapses, it has been a nightmarish tour to South Africa for Pakistan so far. But there is unlikely to be any respite for the beleaguered Sarfraz Ahmed and his men at Wanderers, a venue notorious for its bounce and pace. Ominously, Pakistan were blown away for just 49 runs when they had last played a Test match here during the 2012-13 tour. The 22-yard strip had come under the scanner during the Test match against India last year where it was deemed ‘poor’ by the International Cricket Council (ICC) as several batsmen took blows on their bodies while trying to negotiate the variable bounce.
Much like the track, the focus will also be on the selection calls taken by the Pakistan brain trust. Mohammad Abbas missed the first Test after failing to recover from a shoulder injury while Shadab Khan’s persistent groin niggle ruled him out for the first two Tests. According to Mickey Arthur, the injury to Shadab, considered to be a handy all-rounder, prevented the side to go in with five bowlers and upset the team balance.
The bowling unit in the first two matches consisted of three fast bowlers and Yasir Shah, but the leg-spinner failed to create much impact bagging just one wicket. With Shadab likely to make a comeback, Pakistan will be looking to draft another fast bowler replacing specialist batsman Fakhar Zaman. Zaman has looked woefully out of sorts on the pacy wickets of South Africa and even his demotion in the batting order — from the opener’s slot to number six — has failed to halt the slide.
Faheem Ashraf, a skiddy fast bowler, could have been quite a handful in these conditions but was not included in the playing XI as a fifth bowling option as it was felt his inclusion at the expense of a specialist batsmen would have weakened the already struggling batting line-up. The Pakistan bowlers were good in patches but the increased workload for the three pacemen meant they failed to work-up speeds above 135 kmph. The likes of Kagiso Rabada and Dale Steyn repeatedly touched 145kmph on the speed gun which made a telling difference.
Haris Sohail, one of the in-form batsmen in lead up to the Test series with two hundreds in the recent series against Australia and New Zealand, went home without playing a solitary game. However, his replacement, Shaan Masood, has been the most solid batsman for Pakistan on the tour. Making a comeback after being in the exile from the national team for over a year, the left-hander has looked comfortable even against the short balls which have been the Achilles heels for most of the Pakistani batsmen. He has been rewarded with a place in the one-day squad as well.
Having crossed the 200-run mark only once in the four innings in the series, Pakistan batting unit will have to redeem themselves. The Pakistan coach may have slammed the pitches in the first two Tests for the unpredictable bounce, but the technical flaws of the Pakistan batsmen against rising and seaming deliveries have been woefully exposed.
With three single-digit scores in his four innings in the series, Imam ul Haq will have to come up with a big knock to retain his place in the Test squad. Azhar Ali has also endured a disappointing series averaging just 11. Another batting mainstay, Asad Shafiq, also had a rough outing before redeeming himself with an attractive 88 in the last Test match. The burden of captaincy has adversely affected Sarfraz’s batting performance and there are question marks on whether he should retain the job. Pakistan will have a long break from Test cricket after the tour of South Africa and his future will depend on the outcome of the World Cup in England.
Missing their inspirational leader Faf du Plessis, who is serving a one-match ban for slow over rate, the home team will once again bank on their red-hot fast-bowling unit to ambush Pakistan. The bowling arsenal of fit-again Dale Steyn, Kagiso Rabada, Vernon Philander and Duanne Olivier looks menacing and parallels are being drawn with the fearsome foursome of the West Indies bowling line up during the late 1970s and early 80s.
Du Plessis’ absence opens the door for debutant Zubayr Hamza. The 23-year-old has been scoring heavily in the domestic tournaments for the last couple of years, averaging over 49 in first-class cricket. Aiden Markram has been sweating over his fitness prompting the selectors to call up uncapped opener Pieter Malan to partner stand-in captain Dean Elgar. Interestingly, Malan was part of the 2008 under-19 South African World Cup squad that finished runners-up to India and was the bowler who dismissed India’s captain Virat Kohli in the title clash.
South Africa, currently fourth in the ICC Test rankings, can move past England and New Zealand to the second spot behind India, if they are able to win in the third Test. Meanwhile, Pakistan will slide to the seventh spot if they are not able to prevent a three-nil whitewash in this tour of the Rainbow Nation.