Younis Khan has posted three centuries in his last four Tests against South Africa and, on the eve of the daunting task of taking on the Proteas at the Wanderers, the 34-year-old veteran says the key for Pakistan’s batsmen is to remain positive.
Practically everyone, from the pundits and the bloggers, to those who comment online, agrees that Pakistan’s fortunes in this three-match series will rest on how well their batsmen cope with South Africa’s formidable pace attack and, given all the hype, there is the danger that the touring batsmen will become inhibited, switch to survival mode and ultimately allow the bowlers to dominate.
Younis is a cavalier strokeplayer at heart but he has also played several notable rearguard innings during his 79-Test career, but in a short interview he gave this week he stressed the word “positive” no fewer than six times in two minutes.
“We are very positive, we know that to win against South Africa we have to play with a positive frame of mind and play some positive cricket. If we play like that we have a good chance against South Africa.
“If we play to our potential then we can provide them with some good competition. South Africa know from when we played them in Abu Dhabi and Dubai that we played some good, positive cricket, they know how we play.
“South Africa are the number one team and are doing a very good job these days in both departments, batting and bowling. They have a very balanced team, so I wish Pakistan plays some positive cricket against them. We have some younger players as well, who are also very positive, so I think this is a good chance for those youngsters as well,” Younis said as he surely channelled Norman Vincent Peale.
Captain Misbah ul-Haq concurred on Thursday.
“Being positive is the way to go, we have to back our ability. We need to be aggressive, put the bad balls away and always think positively – it’s the only way to compete against the top sides.”
But Pakistan batsmen are not particularly well-known for assured footwork and that, combined with them being used to flat sub-continental tracks and the Wanderers being renowned for the moving ball, both swing and seam, will bring Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander into the contest in a big way.
Steyn has taken 36 wickets in seven Tests at the Wanderers and has claimed five in an innings there on three occasions and 10 in the Test against New Zealand in 2007. He thrives on the pace he gets off the hard surface and the late swing he is able to generate.
Philander has played just one previous Test in Johannesburg and almost bowled South Africa to victory over Australia with five for 70 in the second innings of their 2011 encounter, and his ability to move the ball into or away from the batsman from a tight off-stump line will make him a handful on a pitch that traditionally sports some grass.
While seam and swing are two of the Wanderers’ best attributes for pace bowlers, the pitch also provides steepling bounce and that will interest both Morne Morkel and potential Pakistan debutant Mohammad Irfan.
There has been plenty of hype around Irfan, mostly due to the fact that he is over seven feet tall, but his candidacy as a match-winner for the tourists will surely be undermined by his lack of experience.
Although he is 30 years old, he has played just five ODIs and two T20 internationals, and has an underwhelming four wickets to his name.
As Morkel pointed out, being that tall makes it imperative that the bowler finds the right length to bowl.
“It’s obviously an advantage to get bounce, but you have to get a fuller length over here, especially at the Wanderers, where it’s the key. Otherwise a lot of batsmen will just leave you on length.
“But sometimes when you try to get the ball fuller, you just put the ball there. Irfan won’t have any experience of these pitches and their extra bounce, so it will take some time for him to adapt,” Morkel said.
South African captain Graeme Smith, who will become the first cricketer to captain in 100 Tests, was being feted by Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula on Thursday for his ability to rise above adversity. “He has the spirit of never surrender and is the paragon of human perfection,” was the high point of the razzmatazz, but his team have normally felt very comfortable at the Wanderers and it’s a venue they know and understand well.
“We have good experience of playing at the Wanderers and on the Highveld there’s usually more swing and good pace and bounce. We understand what we need to do and we just have to be clinical,” Smith said.
South Africa’s batting was clinical enough against New Zealand, with four centuries in the two innings they had in the two Tests, but the quality of the Kiwi attack was nowhere near what Pakistan will bring to the contest.
Left-armer Junaid Khan is well-equipped to also take advantage of the conditions in Johannesburg, but South Africa’s batsmen have handled Umar Gul and spinner Saeed Ajmal well in previous Test meetings.
There is, of course, a celebratory mood in Johannesburg as one of the city’s favourite sons achieves what no one else has managed in the great history of Test cricket, and on his birthday too, but Smith is confident both he and the team will be able to keep their emotions in check come 10.30am on Friday.
“Tomorrow I’ll wake up and turn 32 and lead South Africa for the 100th time in a Test, so that will be one of the proudest moments in my life. It won’t be easy to maintain focus, but I had a taste of it when I played my 100th Test at the Oval and we were able to be successful.
“But that was in a foreign city and I was able to create a bit of space, but here in South Africa there has been such an outpouring of love, it’s been very special and I’ve been walking around in a buzz.
“The team training has been tough, though, and there’s a good maturity in this group and I can feel the energy in the way we’ve prepared. We just need to go out and put it into play and hope for a good day one,” Smith said.
Pakistan will probably line up on Friday with two debutants in opening batsman Nasir Jamshed (Taufeeq Umar has a shin stress-fracture and is going home) and Irfan, while many of their squad will be experiencing the Bullring for the first time.
If anything, they might be the ones who find themselves distracted by the atmosphere.