Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Proteas' mystery mission
Cape Town - The South African cricket team embark this Sunday on a journey into the unknown, in several senses.
It is a fraction over a decade since South Africa last played in the United Arab Emirates, and that was at Sharjah, which does not feature on the agenda for the imminent, neutral-turf series against Pakistan.
And although they have done it often enough in the ever-prolific one-day arena, this will be the first exposure for Graeme Smith’s troops to Test combat at neutral venues.
All of the matches on the tour – two Twenty20 internationals, five ODIs and two Tests – are scheduled either at the Sheikh Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi or Dubai International Cricket Stadium.
Tuesday sees the opening encounter, with a T20 clash at the first-named venue.
All of the limited-overs fixtures in the usually sweltering Emirates are to be day-night affairs, with the Tests likely to pose a more energy-sapping challenge as daily maximum temperatures in the vicinity of 35 deg C will be the norm – and that is “mild” by UAE standards.
Neither ground has yet featured a Test, meaning that the character of the pitches as those matches progress over the five days will be intriguingly unknown to both teams.
But both Smith and coach Corrie van Zyl have indicated to Sport24 that they anticipate general conditions not dissimilar to those so common on the Subcontinent: mostly back-breaking work for the faster men - cloud-cover is a rare phenomenon for any “sideways” activity, too - and some aid for the spinners.
The Abu Dhabi venue, opened in May 2004, boasts marginally more international activity than the 25 000-capacity Dubai one - 16 limited-overs matches thus far to 14, albeit none yet featuring the Proteas.
Sheikh Zayed Stadium is described by Cricinfo as “having no pavilion as such” with large changing rooms beneath a stand and the teams watching play from air-conditioned glass rooms.
South Africa’s last trip to the UAE came in March 2000, when they were reasonably successful in a three-nation Coca-Cola Cup ODI series with India and Pakistan in Sharjah.
Under the captaincy of the late Hansie Cronje, they beat India in both their round-robin encounters, to reach the final against Pakistan.
Batting first, the Pakistanis amassed 263 for six in their 50 overs, and South Africa were promisingly on course to eclipse it until experienced speedster Waqar Younis – a thorn in their flesh several times before – caused mayhem in the lower order with a four-wicket burst.
The South African succumbed by 16 runs, despite 79 from Cronje and half-centuries also for Neil McKenzie and Mark Boucher.
Boucher, even if only for the Test part of the latest tour, will be a “survivor” from the 2000 experience, along with his great friend Jacques Kallis, presently regaining fitness from injury.
But that will be the grand sum of the Proteas’ mild degree of local acumen: the rest of the party 10 years ago have either retired or are no longer in the national team’s plans.
For the record, this was the rest of the 2000 ODI squad: Herschelle Gibbs, Derek Crookes, Nicky Boje, Lance Klusener, Shaun Pollock, Steve Elworthy, Nantie Hayward, Dale Benkenstein, Gary Kirsten, Makhaya Ntini, Pieter Strydom, Charl Willoughby, Louis Koen.