After facing the embarrassment of being bowled out for 49 and sort of saving face with a relatively much improved performance with the bat in the second innings of the first test, Pakistan will take the field once again to battle South Africa in two days.
It has been a long break since the end of the first test of the series and Pakistan have had plenty of time to regroup, practice, and think about tackling the mighty South Africans.
The 2-day game against an Emerging Cape Cobras XI was a successful one for Pakistan as they completed a 10 wicket win and got some valuable practice as well.
Pakistan will be pleased with Younis Khan getting some runs under his belt and more importantly with him spending some time in the middle. Pakistan continued to bat after reaching their target of 58 to get some batting practice, and Younis made full use of the opportunity by knocking an unbeaten 74 and spending over 2.5 hours at the crease.
In 5 innings on tour, prior to this one, Younis had failed to score more than 15. While Hafeez, Nasir, Misbah, and Shafiq have all been among the runs on this tour, it has been the struggle of Younis and Azhar Ali that has been a major spot of bother for Pakistan.
With Younis gaining some confidence, it leaves only Azhar Ali who is yet to score more than 15 on this tour. Azhar's 6 innings thus far include scores of 2, 3, 13, 18, 11, and 12.
But he is struggling in South Africa.
Many have suggested that a defensive approach will not work for him in South African conditions, especially against Dale Steyn & Co., because he is bound to get an unplayable delivery at some point, which he will succumb to after consuming many deliveries and scoring very little.
A more aggressive approach is required, but unfortunately Umar Akmal is not around. Perhaps someone like Asad Shafiq, who likes to keep the scoreboard ticking, can be pushed up the order with Azhar batting at number 6.
There have been suggestions to play Faisal Iqbal instead of Azhar Ali, largely because of Faisal's breezy knock of 33 against the Cape Cobras. Faisal was definitely in good touch and looked in control hitting 7 boundaries in his innings. But he hasn't played a test for Pakistan for over 4 years, with his last appearance coming against Australia in January 2010.
There is something to think about for the Pakistan team management, but I don't see them changing the composition of their trusted top 6. What I would do, however, is move Younis Khan up a position and ask him to bat at number 3, where he has batted for the better part of his career.
Younis moving to number 4 was a good strategic decision as it helped groom Azhar Ali as a long term number 3, but in South African conditions, Pakistan will be better off using the experienced Younis at number 3 and keeping Azhar Ali back.
Given Shafiq's current form, I would bat him at 4, followed by Misbah and Azhar.
The bowling has not been a worry for Pakistan, but a selection blunder in the first test cost them heavily. Rahat Ali is at best a mediocre bowler, and his inclusion instead of Mohammad Irfan was inexplicable.
Everyone has been harping on about how Irfan can't bowl long spells, won't last 5 days, and so on. But everyone is also aware of his effectiveness. Or rather, should have been. A 7 footer bowling on South African pitches is a dream for any captain and yet Pakistan decided not to play him on fitness grounds.
How many times have we all seen Shoaib Akhtar, Shane Bond, and Brett Lee being used in short bursts of three 4-6 over spells in a day in test matches? Their captains understood their effectiveness and limitations and used them effectively.
The same can be done with Mohammad Irfan. 4-5 overs is all that bowlers of his nature need to make an impact. It is also very easy to hide fielders in a test, so Irfan's energy can be easily protected.
After his performance against the Cape Cobras, it will be criminal to leave him out of the team for the second test starting on Thursday.
I wish there was some way that Rehman could be included in the XI, but it is a luxury to play two spinners in South Africa and impossible to replace Saeed Ajmal. Despite that an attack comprising of Junaid, Irfan, Gul, Ajmal, and Hafeez presents lip licking prospects.
Beating this South African team will be a gargantuan task, but I expect a much improved show from Pakistan and a tougher fight than the one given in the first test.
Series abhi baaki hai mere dost…
My XI for the test: 1. Mohammad Hafeez, 2. Nasir Jamshed, 3. Younis Khan, 4. Asad Shafiq, 5. Misbah Ul Haq, 6. Azhar Ali, 7. Sarfraz Ahmed, 8. Umar Gul, 9. Saeed Ajmal, 10. Junaid Khan, 11. Mohammad Irfan.
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