SA have it ‘easy’ on pace front

Mohammad Irfan (Gallo Images)
Mohammad Irfan (Gallo Images)

Cape Town - Traditionally one of the alluring aspects of any Pakistan tour of South Africa has been the presence of at least one genuinely chin-rattling fast bowler in the touring ranks.

So at a time of overkill in bilateral tussles between these sides, the Pakistanis are about to kick off their short, hastily-compiled limited-overs sojourn here glaringly light in that department – perhaps not the ideal way to muster widespread local interest in the exercise.

It is also just another reason to suspect that the in-form Proteas should carry over (now to more familiar and livelier turf) the stranglehold they achieved in both the one-day international and Twenty20 clashes in the United Arab Emirates, winning six of the seven fixtures across those codes very recently.

Immediate return hostilities start at the Wanderers on Wednesday with the first of two T20 internationals (18:00 start), and as much as they will broadly be favoured anyway, the South Africans ought to command a major edge in the bowling hostility factor over the next couple of weeks – especially as Test champion Dale Steyn looks such a rejuvenated force in the condensed versions of the game.

It would be disrespectful to completely pooh-pooh the Pakistani challenge: they will still have in their midst some very sprightly stroke-players – if not all properly versed in the attributes of patience and discipline – the wonderful spinning wiles of Saeed Ajmal and company, and at least some seam-bowling savvy in the shape of established left-armers Junaid Khan and Sohail Tanvir.

The last-named player, he of the quirky action, certainly begins the tour in familiar surroundings as he has given service to the Bullring-based Lions in domestic one-day competitions.

But it is a devastating blow to Pakistan -- and to some extent perhaps also the much-needed gate receipts? -- that the freak, 2.16m paceman Mohammad Irfan has succumbed to preventable over-bowling in the Emirates series against the Proteas and didn’t get on the plane here.

Such extraordinarily elongated frames (ask rugby’s Stormers and Springboks about a certain Andries Bekker!) in sport need delicate management at times and it remains a mystery why the Pakistan brains trust kept flogging Irfan into the T20 portion of the recent itinerary, when it was already known a follow-up series had been cobbled together and he would be desperately needed on SA’s higher-bouncing strips.

At least on the pace front, the visitors now look sadly understaffed as a result: the Proteas batsmen, while largely in the dark about their merits or demerits, ought not to be too intimidated by the addition of rookies Bilawal Bhatti (uncapped) and Anwar Ali to the squad.

Ali has at least played three prior T20 internationals, though all were on the tour of Zimbabwe a little earlier in the year and his economy rate of 9.14 against the minnows doesn’t necessarily suggest he is ready to cause carnage against a superpower like South Africa.

Whatever their collective strengths or weaknesses in this neck of the woods, prior Pakistani touring sides of the post-isolation era have almost always found ways of fighting fire with fire in shock-bowling terms.

In the honeymoon period for the “new” South Africa in the early 1990s, who can forget the toe-crushing mayhem caused by Waqar Younis, backed up by the very different but no less lethal skills of Wasim Akram?

Then a certain Shoaib Akhtar started causing grievous bodily harm – ask Gary Kirsten, just for example – a few years onward, and more recently the towering Irfan has not only dished out some bruises to batsmen but also given general discomfort at the crease to such accomplished characters as Hashim Amla and JP Duminy.

Even as speculation mounted that Irfan was likely to break down sooner rather than later through unrealistic workload, hopes had been raised that the wily Umar Gul, who had major knee surgery in Australia several months ago, might make the cut first for the Emirates contests and thus have an even better chance of playing in the SA-staged games.

Yet neither ended up coming to fruition: remember that Gul can twice boast stellar figures of five for six in T20 internationals, including in his last appearance in the format against the Proteas at Centurion in early March before his injury.

And although there is a quite rightful view that if you commit the crime you must serve the time, keep in mind also that Pakistan are currently deprived of the services of two magnificent fast bowlers in Mohammad Asif and the youthful Mohammad Amir, both jailed and slapped with long-term bans for deliberate on-field irregularities from which they accepted payment from a betting syndicate.

It seems the precociously talented, 21-year-old Amir will have his five-year ban reviewed by the International Cricket Council in early 2014, but that hardly helps their current conundrum in the pace department.

 It is quite some absent arsenal for Pakistan, isn’t it?

I do fear further one-way traffic, but if unpredictable Pakistan can muster at least some fortitude over the course of the five matches around South Africa, it will naturally benefit the Proteas’ preparations for the almost certainly tougher, much-debated visit of India soon afterwards.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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