On January 3 Pakistan landed in Johannesburg, wheeled their luggage across to the domestic terminal and flew to Kimberley, the home of the African diamond. Here they prepared for six days leading up to the first Test, to be held at Centurion Park in Pretoria. As is the case globally now, preparation and acclimatization time for tours is nonsensically short. So don't ask me whether we are under-prepared or not.
The modern-day international cricketer has no time, so he has to adjust quickly mentally and physically to conditions. Fortunately, the pitches at Kimberley and Centurion Park, could provide ideal surfaces for us to find batting form quickly, as they are usually good batting tracks.
South Africa are an extremely difficult side to beat and since their 1992 readmission into cricket, only Australia and England have managed to beat them in a series. Looking at Pakistan's previous record, and indeed having been the coach of the South Africa team during two of those series, the task ahead for this Pakistan side is a difficult one. I personally view it as a test to gauge whether the side has grown individually and collectively. Asian teams do not travel well and success will depend in large part on whether this team embraces South Africa as a country and culture.
Pace like fire
I hesitate to say that we have a better seam attack than those that toured in past tours only because in the 1997-98 series, when Pakistan drew with South Africa, (read Wisden and Mag4you reports of the tour) they had Waqar Younis and Wasim Akram (who only played the last Test), two of the acknowledged greats of the game, and Fazl-e-Akbar who is not a bad seamer. Shoaib Akhtar was also starting his career then.
Younis and Mushtaq Ahmed had played a big part in that victory at Durban (12 wickets between them). Mushtaq, as assistant coach, will be able to offer valuable advice for Danish Kaneria. All things being equal we have a very good seam attack with discipline and talent. If they bowl to their potential, there will not be any easy runs and in Kaneria we have a class spin bowler, so I am optimistic about our bowling.
It's the batting, stupid
The main frailty on those tours was the batting, though in a way it is ironic that on the 1997-98 tour, Pakistan did have a famous opening partnership in Saeed Anwar and Aamir Sohail, an area where there has been considerable criticism of the current team. Anwar, in particular, did well against the daunting duo of Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock.
It is in batting that we will have to tighten up and if we are to beat South Africa then runs are going to be the key. The Australians were always awesome, making South Africa's bowling toil by batting so well and so rapidly. The Australians, of course, are brought up on faster, bouncier pitches and South Africa is similar, though there is more seam movement. But I remember when I first played in South Africa, John Edrich advised me to just play straight and wait for the bad ball, which wasn't bad advice.
Like all international sides, the Pakistan team has abundant talent and probably more so than I have ever witnessed in my career. Inzamam as captain is the direct opposite of Graeme Smith: undemonstrative and endlessly calm and still a great batsman. The two Y's, Younis Khan and Mohammed Yousuf, are also tried, tested and successful players. Much might depend on how the youngsters, such as Shoaib Malik, Kamran Akmal and Imran Farhat to name but three, adapt in these conditions against a fiery and competitive host.
Ntini's angle and Nel's tantrums
I am most interested in the strides made by Makhaya Ntini, who has developed into a very fine bowler. He makes life very awkward for batsmen, managing to bowl from very wide of the crease. It is this angle that creates indecision in defence. It is an area that we have been addressing and hopefully will help blunt the attack.
Dealing with Andre Nel, Shaun Pollock, Andrew Hall and Jacques Kallis will take courage, a great deal of skill and a slice of luck. Nel will provide an interesting challenge, especially his demeanour on the field, which takes some getting used to. The South Africans made a tremendous amount of noise on the field in Durban against the Indian batsmen and this mental disintegration, as Steve Waugh put it, is an area that any team has to overcome.
The deciding factor may well be the pitches that we play on and we must be able to adapt. Centurion, Port Elizabeth and Cape Town are three excellent venues. Centurion usually has a lot of grass on it but spongy bounce. Port Elizabeth tends to be slightly low and uneven by the end of the Test, while Cape Town can turn and there will be bounce. In the last two venues, the wind direction also makes a difference.
All in all, it will be a tough tour but if we are to be genuine contenders for the World Cup, we need to be competitive against South Africa. The Indians showed at the Wanderers that they can be beaten.