Dry pitch, overcast conditions keep Pakistan, SA guessing on playing XI

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RAWALPINDI: The first impression which depicts the setting for the final Test of the two-match series at the Pindi Cricket Stadium is the contrasting atmosphere as Pakistan and South Africa prepare to resume their battle from Thursday in the garrison town.

Unlike the conditions during last week’s opening Test at Karachi — where the Babar Azam-led home side sealed a comfortable seven-wicket victory to take an unbeatable 1-0 advantage — there is ample evidence in Rawalpindi to suggest that the pace bowlers could have a major say with the overall surroundings being much cooler under heavy overcast conditions.

Babar, however, reckons the pitch here is not that dissimilar to the National Stadium track where spinners had major chunks of wickets — Nauman Ali and Yasir Shah sharing 14 between them and South Africa’s frontline slow left-armer Keshav Maharaj chipping with four in the Test.

“By the look of things, the pitch here in Rawalpindi, more or less, has almost the same kind of texture to the one we played in Karachi and is also on the slow side. The difference, of course, are the weather and conditions here [in Rawalpindi] and as we all have seen that there was no sunshine during our training session today,” Babar remarked during the pre-match virtual media conference on Wednesday.

“I can’t say for sure what will be our playing XI. We may go with the same side that was fielded in the first Test. It all depends on the conditions whether we’ll make any change at all.

“There are some talks about us bringing in an extra seamer due to the overcast atmosphere as of now but I won’t be able to give a final answer on this until tomorrow morning. So far our preparations have gone very well and the three days of training have put everyone in a positive frame of mind,” said the prolific batsman.

“Winning the Test in Karachi has sent positive vibes through the ranks but we are aware that South Africa are a good side with the capacity of bouncing back. Therefore, our main focus is not to get complacent at any stage. The heartening aspect going into this game is that the momentum is on our side, particularly the way Pakistan came back in Karachi after the chaotic first day.

“The manner in which Fawad Alam and Azhar Ali set the foundation for our big lead during that critical partnership on day two, and then the way Nauman and Yasir excelled to put South Africa in disarray was great to see.”

The 26-year-old right-hander — arguably Pakistan’s best batsman — is looking forward to rediscover his touch after scores of 0 and 30 during the Karachi Test, with Maharaj trapping him twice in front of the stumps.

“Obviously a big score is just round the corner and I’ve fond memories of playing here [two of Babar’s five centuries were made on this ground in successive Tests — unbeaten 102 against Sri Lanka in December 2019 and career-best 143 versus Bangladesh in February 2020] because the pitch encourages stroke-play,” Babar recalled. “But this time it would be a strange scenario altogether since there will be no fans to support our team due the [Covid-19] pandemic. I’m sure they would be watching the game on TV and praying for our success.”

Meanwhile, South Africa were sweating over the fitness of Maharaj, who suffered a rib injury during practice on Tuesday, and are also contemplating fielding pace-bowling all-rounder Wiaan Mulder.

Head coach Mark Boucher, during Wednesday’s online media conference, kept his fingers crossed over Maharaj’s availability for the Test while saying the pitch condition here have changed markedly after their arrival here for practice two days ago.

“If you look at the overall Test history of this ground, you’ll probably say it is more seamer-friendly and when we came for practice on Monday we saw a quite bit of grass on the surface. But when we arrived here yesterday [Tuesday] the topping had been taken off. Now the pitch appears to be very dry,” Boucher said. “Talking to a couple of Pakistan players and their coaching staff, they are unsure as to how would this pitch will play. Yeah it is an interesting one because I don’t think anyone knows how’s it going to play. There is a bit of moisture around and there are lot of early morning dew. ‘

“We’ll probably not get in a full day’s play here because it gets dark very early. So I’m also not sure about making a final call as regards team selection. Going back to Karachi our plans got disrupted with the loss of Tabraiz Shamsi just before the match started. Being a wrist spinner, Tabraiz could have made a big difference there. It was like a bubble burst then,” said Boucher.

“Another concern is Keshav. He pulled up yesterday during practice with a rib niggle. He went for scans but we aren’t sure the extent of his injury. Today he felt fine but we will wait and see how he’s going to cope on Thursday morning.

“Mulder is certainly in our plans because the pitch has a few cracks. He is someone who can hit the good areas for a long period of time and he’s always going to be difficult for the batsmen. I think Dean Elgar [who was struck on his hand in Karachi] looks fine and fit to play. He batted [in the nets] with injections and felt no pain,” he added.

Boucher conceded that the double batting failure in Karachi was more due to adjusting to the conditions mentally. “I don’t think the guys were perturbed by the spin Test in the first match. The two runouts didn’t help us. In my view it is more of mental block than anything. Our batsmen learnt a great deal watching how the Pakistani batters played and I hope to see them show overall improvement during this Test.”

Meanwhile, Boucher expressed deep disappointment over the postponement of the home series against Australia but pledged his side are focussed on the final Test in Rawalpindi.

“Look, we are pretty disappointed about what had transpired the other day because we were all looking forward to that [Australia] series. I can only say that Cricket South Africa had done everything in their domain to make Australia as comfortable as possible, to the extent of laying out the carpet for them.

“But the boys have not lost the focus despite what has happened because our collective aim here is to beat Pakistan and draw the series.”

Both these side have played just once in a Test at this venue, way back in October 1997 when Ali Naqvi and Azhar Mahmood scored debut centuries in the drawn fixture. Overall, in the 10 Tests played here, Pakistan have won four — against Zimbabwe (1993), New Zealand (1996), West Indies (1997) and Bangladesh (2020) — while losing to Sri Lanka (1995), Australia (1998) and India (2004) and drawing also against Australia (1994) and Sri Lanka (2019).

Teams (from):

PAKISTAN: Abid Ali, Imran Butt, Azhar Ali, Babar Azam (captain), Fawad Alam, Mohammad Rizwan, Faheem Ashraf, Hasan Ali, Yasir Shah, Nauman Ali, Shaheen Shah Afridi, Sarfaraz Ahmed, Tabish Khan, Mohammad Nawaz, Saud Shakeel, Haris Rauf, Sajid Khan.

SOUTH AFRICA: Dean Elgar, Aiden Markram, Rassie van der Dussen, Faf du Plessis, Quinton de Kock (captain), Temba Bavuma, Wiaan Mulder, Keshav Maharaj, Kagiso Rabada, Anrich Nortje, Lungi Ngidi, George Linde, Tabraiz Shamsi, Keegan Petersen, Dwaine Pretorius.

Umpires: Aleem Dar (Pakistan) and Ahsan Raza (Pakistan).

TV umpire: Asif Yaqoob (Pakistan).

Fourth umpire: Rashid Riaz (Pakistan).

Match referee: Mohammad Javed Malik (Pakistan).