The Proteas were far from convincing in concluding 2018 with victory in the first Test at SuperSport Park in Centurion – and will surely insist on a more polished performance in the second at Newlands in Cape Town, starting on Thursday.
Pakistan, well, have been subjected to characteristic criticism of their batsmen, alongside a growing lack of faith in their captain – and certainly haven’t been assisted by coach Mickey Arthur’s off-field histrionics.
Selection issues continue to focus on the return of all-rounder Vernon Philander, and more specifically who needs to make way for him. The veritable demi-god of Newlands, where he has taken almost a quarter of his 200-plus Test wickets, has now recovered from the injury that ruled him out of the series opener.
Batsman Theunis de Bruyn or spinner Keshav Maharaj will need to sit out for Philander. Captain Faf du Plessis has confirmed the Proteas won’t sideline a man that took 11 wickets in Centurion. They might go without de Bruyn or Maharaj, though. Tough decision, indeed.
Then there’s captain du Plessis’ need to put a poor 2018 behind him with a solid start to the new year, fast bowler Kagiso Rabada’s conviction that the match should span five days, and opener Aiden Markram’s bid to shake off his lbw voodoo.
Much was made of the veteran Hashim Amla’s so-called return to form in the fourth innings at SuperSport Park, but a low-key half-ton in a relatively small pursuit hasn’t taken the pressure off. He must still justify the faith shown in him at Newlands, particularly with the young Zubayr Hamza effectively waiting to take over.
The tourists certainly have the bowlers to undo the Proteas – and will have the talented Mohammad Abbas back in the ranks. It’s in the batting department, though, that the concerns rest. Arthur has had it out with the top-through-middle order – and hopefully they’ll heed his calls for substance and stamina in Cape Town.
As is the norm with teams from the subcontinent, skipper Sarfraz Ahmed is under constant pressure to deliver runs and results. Unlike Du Plessis, Ahmed is unable to hide behind victories amid a lean run of form. If the resources batting above him can’t deliver enough on cue, then he needs to be the one doing so alongside the lower order. Tough gig, yes, but the Pakistan Cricket Board’s demand, regardless.
Leg-spinner Yasir Shah’s role was reduced to a bit part in Centurion, but should expand at Newlands, if he is retained at all. He’ll be empowered by the return of Abbas, too, as the slow bowler and seamer have operated superbly in tandem in the past.
Pakistan have never won a Test match at Newlands – and will be up against an opposition who have not lost to any team, other than Australia, at this venue since 1962. This Test, too, will be groundsman Evan Flint’s last at Newlands – and fans and critics alike are eager to see what type of surface he has prepared for this week. Much has of late been made of pitch preparation worldwide – and Flint will be eager to do what counterpart curators in Australia and other nations haven’t been able to accomplish in reality.