First Test preview: Pakistan v South Africa
The United Arab Emirates is arguably the final frontier for Graeme Smith and company, while Misbah-ul-Haq's men have recent wrongs against Zimbabwe to correct.
Largely dominant over all put before them over the last 24 months, South Africa are now presented with arguably a final frontier in the United Arab Emirates.
What was signaled in Sharjah's tour fixture is likely to continue in Abu Dhabi – and Dubai isn't going to prove any different. The Proteas, however, must overcome characteristically placid pitches to prove they are the complete package.
Batting, even with worries over the match fitness and form of the returning Graeme Smith, isn't going to be a problem – and the conundrum lies in the bowling ranks. No matter the composition of the attack, 20 wickets are needed.
New coach Russell Domingo has suggested all-rounder JP Duminy will be relied on for a lot more overs than usual, leaving the leg-spinner Imran Tahir's return unlikely. Fair play, as Robin Peterson has served the nation well – and doesn't really need a complementary force, despite the low and slow conditions.
Seamer Vernon Philander is in for the biggest challenge of his career yet. Pitches have suited his 'fourth stump' approach to a tee so far, but a lack of lateral movement and absence of swing is sure to force a rethink.
This is a South African unit without the inspiration of former coach Gary Kirsten, still finding its feet under Domingo and potentially flawed by Smith's lack of time out in the middle recently. That said, the veteran has seen it all before – and should re-find his groove soon enough.
The shortfalls, indeed, are there for Pakistan to explore – but memories of humiliation against Zimbabwe in Harare recently influence. Captain Misbah-ul-Haq's belligerence in the subsequent Champions League Twenty20 promised better – from the team as a whole – this time.
The tourists have been arguably the first to insist there is more to the opposition attack than spinner Saeed Ajmal. Whether that is clinical judgment or questionable oversight remains to be seen, but there is little denying the potential impact of the planet's best slow bowler. To truly be the best, though, he needs to prove himself against the best.
With the men separated from the boys during Harare's postmortem, Pakistan's squad sports a considerably stronger look. The addition of the lanky Mohammad Irfan might prove instrumental, while the experience of Abdur Rehman is most welcome. The ousted Mohammad Hafeez's replacement, probably Ahmed Shehzad, certainly has big boots to fill.
Meanwhile, the start of October brought the International Cricket Council's trial of topping up referrals at the turn of the 80th over, meaning overs 77, 78 and 79 are sure to bring plenty of very unwarranted appeals. Regardless, it's an intriguing proposition for a Decision Review System under substantial fire. The Test Championship, too, has been launched – and opportunity to knocks for South Africa to consolidate their position at the top and Pakistan to jump from fourth to sixth spot.
<b>Key Men</b><br>Hafeez's exclusion has thrust plenty of responsibility onto the shoulders of <b>Khurram Manzoor</b>. The promise shown against Zimbabwe in difficult conditions must be converted against stronger opposition on easier pitches.
Spin is certainly going to have a big say in the UAE, Abu Dhabi in particular, and <b>Robin Peterson</b> has a large, long task ahead – particularly if South Africa select just one specialist slow bowler.
<b>Last Five Head-To-Head Results</b><br>2013: South Africa won by an innings and 18 runs in Centurion<br>2013: South Africa won by four wickets in Cape Town<br>2013: South Africa won by 211 runs in Johannesburg<br>2010: Match drawn in Abu Dhabi<br>2010: Match drawn in Dubai
<b>Prediction</b><br>The Sheikh Zayed Stadium pitch has been rated, namely by Jacques Kallis, as one of the flattest on earth – and it'll be very tough for either attack to drag 20 wickets out of the docile deck. Herein lies the crux, which South Africa are likely to ultimately sway their way.
<b>Probable Teams</b><br><i>Pakistan:</i> Khurram Manzoor, Ahmed Shehzad, Azhar Ali, Younis Khan, Misbah-ul-Haq, Umar Amin, Adnan Akmal, Abdur Rehman, Saeed Ajmal, Junaid Khan, Rahat Ali.
<i>South Africa:</i> Graeme Smith (captain), Alviro Petersen, Jacques Kallis, Hashim Amla, AB de Villiers, JP Duminy, Faf du Plessis, Robin Peterson, Vernon Philander, Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel.
<b>Dates:</b> 14 to 18 October<br><b>Morning session:</b> 10:00-12:00 (06:00-08:00 GMT)<br><b>Afternoon session:</b> 12:40-14:40 (08:40-10:40 GMT)<br><b>Evening session:</b> 15:00-17:00 (11:00-15:00 GMT)<br><b>On-field umpires:</b> ARod Tucker and Paul Reiffel<br><b>Third umpire:</b> Ian Gould<br><b>Match referee:</b> David Boon
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