The three-Test series will conclude at the Wanderers in Johannesburg, where South Africa will be depleted by the absence of captain Faf du Plessis. JONHENRY WILSON reports.
Pakistan, their players say, are motivated enough to attempt to avoid a series whitewash. Their individual and collective ability to walk the talk, though, is improbable.
Du Plessis won’t be in the XI due to a slow over rate ban. Dean Elgar is back at the helm, temporarily, having done the job against England a year or so ago. The regular skipper’s tactical nuance will be missed, but Elgar has enough steel and experience to fill the void well enough.
The absence of Du Plessis in the middle order will arguably be felt more than the missing leadership. Zubayr Hamza has all but been confirmed as the replacement, which will afford the youngster to play alongside – rather than instead of – Hashim Amla. Hamza has been touted as Amla’s long-term successor – and here’s a one-off opportunity to support the claims.
Fellow Cape Cobras batsman Pieter Malan could have leapfrogged Hamza to status as the 100th Proteas cricketer since readmission to international cricket in 1991. Malan was standby for opener Aiden Markram, who was battling a thigh injury, but has since passed a late fitness test.
Plenty of eyes, meanwhile, are on the conditions of the pitch in Johannesburg. Central Gauteng Lions Greg Fredericks was quick to quieten speculation about anything unconducive, particularly after opposing coaches Ottis Gibson and Mickey Arthur’s exchanges concerning the decks prepared in Centurion and Cape Town.
Whether the Proteas return Keshav Maharaj to the XI remains in the balance. He’d need to come in for a seamer, if at all. Kagiso Rabada couldn’t feasibly be rested for a Test at his home ground, while Vernon Philander and Dale Steyn have only just returned – and Duanne Olivier demands and extended stay. Tough choice, indeed.
A two-nil series win will be enough for the Proteas to go past New Zealand, back to third in the International Cricket Council’s rankings for Test teams. Three-nil, naturally, would do the same, but two-one wouldn’t. A draw is highly unlikely at a venue that has only seen two stalemates in its last 20 Tests.
Defeated inside three days in Centurion, the tourists managed to push the second Test at Newlands into a fourth. No matter how long or short it takes in Johannesburg, a victory is needed to avoid going winless a fifth time in 10 series against South Africa.
The current squad has three survivors – all batsmen – from Pakistan’s last visit to the Wanderers for a Test in 2013. Azhar Ali, Asad Shafiq and Sarfraz Ahmed, then, are largely tasked with righting the team’s batting wrongs of the series so far. Others like Imam-ul-Haq, of course, are not freed from this responsibility. They’ll all have to be at their ‘very best’, emotionally, mentally and physically, as Imam recently insisted.
Batting concerns aside, the visiting XI also need to beef up their bowling resources. Much has been made of their lack of an additional options – spinner or seamer – in the first two Tests. It’ll be a tough balance to crack, but perhaps the time is now for burgeoning all-rounder Faheem Ashraf to replace a specialist seamer. The danger, though, would be an over-reliance on him to deliver on cue with bat and ball.