Pakistan in SA

Danger signs flash for Proteas

2013-02-16 07:15
Saeed Ajmal (Gallo Images)
Cape Town – Argue all you like about the complicated web of technical aspects at play in Newlands favourite Jacques Kallis’s controversial dismissal on Friday ... what cannot be escaped is that South Africa are in trouble in the second Test against Pakistan.

Some relief for the No 1-ranked home side was that, two balls before the close of the second day’s activity, they staved off any prospect of follow-on embarrassment at their supposed fortress where they have not lost in their last 10 Tests.

But they will also know that achieving that initial objective was a bit like putting a plaster on a broken leg – their problems haven’t suddenly gone away.

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With only five first-innings wickets in hand and still 199 runs adrift of the seemingly resurgent Pakistanis, a very long road still has to be negotiated to haul the Proteas off the back foot in this match.

Given the well-founded fears that the Test is being played on a dry track, and with a mini-heatwave predicted for the weekend’s combat, spin (though perhaps also some up-and-down bounce for the quicker men) is probably going to become an increasingly forceful factor.

Given that scenario, what the Proteas ideally need, in order to feel comfortable, is to achieve a lead on the first knock, not just parity or something pretty close to it.

The spectre of batting last hangs heavily, and if the home side trail to a significant degree ahead of the Pakistan second dig, they will probably have to bowl out of their skins – admittedly something they can do quite pleasingly at times – if they are not to find themselves chasing a perilous target of, say, 230-plus given the expected conditions.

Much probably rests on the existing, sixth-wicket alliance of seasoned, eternally enterprising AB de Villiers and still relative rookie Dean Elgar if the Proteas are to get their first knock back into the necessary positive territory.

It is a fine opportunity for the left-handed Elgar: if he can produce a kind of vigil not too unlike his maiden Test century against New Zealand in Port Elizabeth recently, and this time under far greater pressure, he will bear out Gary Kirsten’s theory that South Africa’s advantageous point of difference to the rest of the Test pack is a specialist batsman as low as No 7.

But as things stand, Pakistan are undoubtedly in the driving seat ... and on Friday the man almost entirely responsible for that ascendancy was the wily little off-spinner Saeed Ajmal, who has had the distinction of claiming all five, cream-of-the-order wickets to fall.

There was some turn for him, though nothing too pronounced yet, and he made good use of a stiff south-easter during the day to get some dip and drift in a marathon spell of duty into its teeth from the Kelvin End.

Just getting to a “five-for” thus far has been a standout achievement for the 35-year-old (a late arrival on the Test scene in 2009 at 32) who had also featured earlier in a precious ninth-wicket partnership of 64 with Tanvir Ahmed.

For not since the iconic series of 1969/70 against Australia, where South Africa won 4-0, has a slow bowler grabbed a five-wicket haul in a first innings at Newlands.

On that first-Test occasion, Aussie off-spinner Ashley Mallett bagged 5/126 as Ali Bacher’s side, having won the toss and chosen first strike, registered 382 all out.

The now 67-year-old Mallett’s effort was also less compelling in the sense that the vast majority of those dismissals were of the tail-end variety, in huge contrast to the damage Ajmal has done in this Test thus far.

Ajmal, who ought to be a particular handful in the Proteas’ second innings, becomes the first spinner in the 26 post-isolation Tests at the venue to achieve the milestone, although several have managed four wickets in a first knock.

Considering how dominant they have largely been in recent Test matches, there will be a certain degree of excitement among the Proteas’ supporters on Saturday – a full house is expected, which is a fillip of its own to the team – about the prospect of seeing them try to dig themselves out of an unusual hole.

Bounce-back mettle, remember, has been a striking feature occasionally on the road to No 1 by Graeme Smith’s side, and it is definitely needed here.

I stand by my belief that South Africa are flirting pretty unpleasantly with possible defeat, as things stand.

But I am also not suggesting it is time to read them their last rites on the contest. Not for a second ...

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

Read more on:    pakistan  |  proteas  |  pakistan in sa  |  cape town  |  cricket
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