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South Africa gear up for gritty cricket

With a jaunty Assalam walaikum, Graeme Smith announced the arrival of South Africa in Pakistan for a short, sharp tour which takes in four cities, two Tests, two warm-up games and five one-day internationals in just over a month.

Not that the tourists are likely to see much of the country anyway but security issues have hovered over the tour from the very start and Smith acknowledged, as he did before his departure, that being cooped up in hotels with little else to do would be as much a challenge as anything on the field. In 2005-06 Duncan Fletcher's England side were unable to overcome similar problems, eventually losing both the Test and ODI series.

"I'm not going to lie about it," Smith said. "It's different to how we live back home but its not the first time. Security issues are becoming a part of international sport and something we have come to terms with. It will be one of the challenges for us but the security provided to the team is fantastic. It allows us to focus on our cricket."

The cricket will not be of the kind they have been playing recently. South Africa and Pakistan played their last Test, against each other, in January this year and switching modes, in such little time, will not be easy.

"Mentally it's going to be tough to switch your mindset for the longer version, not only for us but also for Pakistan," Smith said. "We haven't played a Test for so many months now and it's tough to play Test cricket on the subcontinent. Pakistan are formidable at home, so we have to be ready for that."

For focusing on the field, the composition of the 14-man squad couldn't be better balanced: seven members of the side have toured Pakistan with the senior side before and seven others are making their first trip.

The role of the seniors, Smith said, would be crucial: "We have some players with a lot of subcontinent experience now, and it's important they help the young guys, especially in the bowling department, where we have some good new talent. The selection committee has given an opportunity to young players and we certainly feel that they can also play a role."

As they have done since their readmission into international cricket, South Africa will rely heavily on pace. Though the policy served them well in their early years in this region, the lack of spinning options has eventually told. South Africa have not won a series in the subcontinent - apart from beating Bangladesh - since 2000. Paul Harris' tall, left-arm orthodox is the sole option and he bears a heavy responsibility.

"You've got to have spin options available to select them," Smith ruefully acknowledged. "But a big responsibility lies with Paul. He had a good debut and is a hungry guy. This will be a challenge to him. There will be tough times and also times when he will do well."

Two sides looking to improve their Test rankings, in the process of ensuring a smooth procession between older players and younger replacements, could come together to provide a stirring series.

Mickey Arthur, South Africa's coach, recognised the potential for a worthy battle. "We have a chance to blood a young team which could carry us for a couple of years to come. Pakistan might be in the same boat, we both want to get up in the rankings and that could make the series a thrilling one."

Smith is on the same page. "One thing I can predict is that this will be a tough series. There will be some very good cricket and a hard-fought battle."

With or without Shoaib Akhtar, as it happens. When asked whether facing a Shoaib-less Pakistan would be an advantage, Smith cheerily replied, "I don't know, for us or for Pakistan?"

South Africa play a three-day warm-up game against a Patron's XI beginning tomorrow, before the first Test starts at the National Stadium on October 1.



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