As Proteas kick off away series in neutral UAE, spare a thought for Pakistani fans

2010-10-27 00:00

SOUTH Africa’s away series against Pakistan has begun on unfamiliar territory, the United Arab Emirates. Sadly (more for Pakistani cricket lovers than for players) places like Karachi, Lahore and Faisalabad are no longer on the touring itinerary. Instead, Abu Dhabi and Dubai are hosting Pakistan as a neutral venue.

The Emirates brings to mind extreme heat, a desert landscape and obligatory air conditioning. Fortunately for the Proteas, this time of year has relatively mild weather — even so maximum temperatures will reach 30°C and minimums around 20°C. Still, a mercy compared with the near 50°C of the summer months. In this climate there’s little chance that Duckworth Lewis will be called upon unless a sandstorm stops play.

The Sheikh Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi is first on the itinerary and is literally in the middle of nowhere. This impressive stadium cost a staggering $22 million to build and is situated in a remote area 30 minutes from the city centre of Abu Dhabi.

Devoid of grass, the pitch resembles the desert it was built on. The wicket should keep low and slow and will do very little to light up the faces of the South African pacemen. However, front line batsmen will be chomping at the bit to get to the crease.

With many Pakistanis working in Abu Dhabi, Pakistan will have good support at this ‘home from home’ ground. Despite the match fixing allegations that seem to shadow Pakistan wherever they go, they are still held in high regard by their fans spread across the globe.

From Abu Dhabi the series will move on to Dubai. Here there will be a greater following for the Proteas as more than 50 000 South Africans currently call Dubai home.

The Dubai International Cricket Stadium is a world-class venue and a luxurious one at that. No expense has been spared on this state of the art ground, which boasts an immaculate outfield and a unique lighting system dubbed the “Ring of Fire”. Instead of towers of lights, banks of lights are mounted on the roof of the stands providing spectacular illumination in day/night fixtures.

There is every likelihood that the pitch preparation will be heavily influenced by Pakistan. As in Abu Dhabi, it’s unlikely we’ll see much grass or bounce to negate the effectiveness of the South African quicks and to favour Pakistan’s bolstered spin attack.

It promises to be a fascinating series, one in which South Africa will be tested far beyond anything Zimbabwe were able to muster. As World Cup preparation it is ideal, as the UAE wickets will resemble those on offer on the subcontinent when the ICC World Cup gets under way in February.

Compared to minnows Zimbabwe, the ever unpredictable and mercurial Pakistanis will present a much tougher challenge for the Proteas. Pakistan are a team blessed with natural talent and have the potential to beat any team in world cricket on a good day, as their record shows. Even with controversy dogging them and rumours of infighting plaguing the team, they are still able to turn on the magic when required.

Spare a thought, though, for the Pakistani fans in that country who for the foreseeable future will not be able to throng to the grounds around Pakistan as they did in the past. Instead they will have to be content to catch glimpses of their heroes on TV.

Watching their team duelling it out in the desert may not feel like ‘cricket’ for the home fans, but losing Pakistan to world cricket altogether would surely be a far greater tragedy.

• Neil Johnson is a former Natal, WP and Zimbabwe all-rounder who lives and coaches in Pietermaritzburg.

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