South Africa – Pakistan’s real nemesis
Just over two years ago, Misbah-ul-Haq and Younis Khan ground out a drawn series against South Africa in the Gulf. In the larger scheme of things, this was just another bat-heavy series played on dead pitches that Pakistan have often been involved in; but in its context – in the aftermath of the inglorious summer of 2010 – it was seen as a step in the right direction. Misbah the captain was a temporary measure – the one eyed man in the land of the blind and unwilling.
At that moment, it would have been inconceivable that he would still be the captain the next time Pakistan faced off against South Africa; or that the drawn series would actually be the start a new era – a golden era, some may say. But the best Pakistani Test side for twenty-odd years has still not been able to convince everyone in their fanbase. The tour to South Africa is their toughest test yet, but it is also the best possible chance for them to finally win over everyone.
But that’s not going to happen.
Better Pakistani teams have gone to play inferior South African sides and come back embarrassed and riddled with controversies. South Africa, even more than Australia, have been Pakistan’s dementors. Throughout the 90s, they were the nemesis to what Pakistan stood for – they were consistent, overachieving, and they won. Especially against Pakistan. Seemingly only against Pakistan. Our teams have always struggled whenever they’ve faced armies of Probots (unless they were from New Zealand); and no one exposed Pakistan’s ailments quite like South Africa. One passage could define the late 90s for both sides: Shaun Pollock – that great bowler with no apparent talent – repeatedly bowling two feet outside the off-stump to an overloaded slip-cordon, and Saeed Anwar – the perfect representation of the pure Pakistani spirit – itching to flash at every ball. Anwar was a man who seemed to do things on a whim. Pollock was very much the 21st century athlete who had planned and understood every scenario before a ball had been bowled, and was going to stick to that, come what may – including Duckworth-Lewis calculations.
By the end of his career, Anwar would average 5.33 against Pollock in ODIs. Pakistan would lose 14 consecutive ODIs to South Africa between 1995 and 2000. A generation grew up fearing any match where Pakistan played South Africa. They may have been insecure chokers with false bravado for everyone else, but for us they were the next stage in the cricket evolution – a stage Pakistan never looked like getting to.
But this is no longer that South Africa; nor will this Pakistan be familiar to South Africans. Now, Pakistan’s modus operandi is to choke; to force the opposition batsmen to give their wicket away, to tire out the opposition bowlers and then pick them apart. Team Misbah is very much a student of the Cronjite school: Gary Kirsten would not have looked out of place in Pakistan’s current batting lineup. Our lot still may not be a decent fielding side (one wonders whether the South Africans of the early 50s were better fielders than current Pakistanis), but in the other two disciplines they have moved on from the underachievement of their predecessors to a semblance of dour consistency.
And as Pakistan has changed, so has South Africa. The true heir to Saeed Anwar – for the title of the bearded-bloke-with-wrists-of-velvet – resides in South Africa’s top order. Their middle order has become, probably, the best players of spin in the world. And they have a fast bowling attack that is not just about thunderbolts, lightening and being very, very frightening; it has nuance and ability – particularly in the shape of Dale Steyn: the most complete fast bowler since Wasim Akram.
On paper Pakistan really shouldn’t be in with a chance. Any positive result from the series would be a pleasant surprise. But even when doubts begin to circle within one’s head about the potential embarrassment that might happen in alien environment for the current XI, one only has to look back twelve months: to a series which started with Pakistan as the underdog, and finished with, arguably, Pakistan’s greatest ever series win. If that doesn’t comfort you, nothing will.
And one fears that over the next two months Pakistani fans are going to need a lot of comforting.