Size and swing could sway Proteas

Pakistan fast bowler Junaid Khan celebrates taking a wicket in a one-day match against the West Indies. He’ll be hoping for more success in the Tests against South Africa.  (AFP)

Pakistan fast bowler Junaid Khan celebrates taking a wicket in a one-day match against the West Indies. He’ll be hoping for more success in the Tests against South Africa. (AFP)

There is no category of cricketer to which Pakistan has not contributed one of the all-time “greats”. Zaheer Abbas and Javed Miandad have the batting covered, and Inzamam-ul-Haq probably makes it, too.

Abdul Qadir was the original modern-day spinning genius who could entangle entire batting line-ups in a web of googlies and leg-spinners without the aid of uncovered pitches and after him came Saqlain Mushtaq, the inventor of the now fabled “doosra”. The current spinner, Saeed Ajmal, bowls it faultlessly and unrecognisably. The hall of fame beckons for him, too.

Imran Khan remains without peer as an all-rounder although there are a handful who sit alongside him at the very top of the pile – Garfield Sobers, Ian Botham, Kapil Dev, Richard Hadlee and Jacques Kallis.

Strengths and weaknesses have come and gone in the passing eras for Pakistan but their “banker”, usually, has been a steady and unrelenting supply of fast bowlers.

Just as Imran had mentors, he became the inspiration for Wasim Akram and then plucked Waqar Younis out of teenaged obscurity to form one of the great partnerships of all time. And then, of course, there was the infamous but outrageously talented Shoaib Akhtar. Now, after a rare period in the doldrums, locals are cautiously confident that the country may be on the verge of a fast bowling renaissance.

The leader of the current attack is Umar Gul, capable of moments – and entire spells – of pure genius and a master, too, of the great art of ferociously late reverse swing, which has its still occasionally mysterious roots in his country. Gul is often described as “moody” but that is only  a reflection of his on-field persona. His rhythm can be affected by a batsman’s counterattack and he is his own most severe critic. Pakistani cricketers have rarely been concerned with such fripperies as “body language” so, to the uneducated eye, he may seem a sulker. He is not.

Gul struggles to adapt from one format to another and the quality of his performance during a series is often dictated by the way he starts. So the message is clear to Graeme Smith and his top order – attack him early and don’t let him settle. He can be deadly with the old ball and is capable of replicating the devastating, in-swinging yorkers made so famous by Waqar. But he is also more effective in short spells so much of his effectiveness will be determined by how well the other fast bowlers perform and how long his captain, Misbah-ul-Haq, is forced to keep him bowling.

The next big thing
At more than 2m tall, Mohammad Irfan (30) may be the big thing in Pakistan’s attack but Junaid Khan is, metaphorically, the next big thing. At least, that’s what his countrymen are hoping. You don’t have to look far to find ironies and contradictions in Pakistan but the fact that 23-year-old Junaid grew up dreaming of being a fast bowler after watching YouTube videos of Wasim and Waqar is a good example. YouTube is banned in the country now.

A left-armer with genuine pace and the ability to swing the ball both ways, the impeccably mannered Junaid has a double burden to carry: he is (unfairly but understandably) described as the “new Wasim” but he is also expected to fill the gap left by the unfortunate Mohammed Amir while he completes his International Cricket Council ban for bowling deliberate no-balls against England at Lord’s two years ago. He played alongside Amir at under-19 level and was expected to graduate ahead of him, but didn’t. When Waqar was national team coach he rated Junaid as one of the most intelligent and astute fast bowlers for his age that he had ever seen. A softly spoken Pathan with a wicked in-swinger to right-handers, don’t be surprised if Junaid surprises more than a few Proteas at the top of the order. This could be a big series for him.

Irfan’s size is a distraction, which could well play into the rest of the attack’s hands. Every time he’s measured there’s a slightly different result but suffice to say he is the tallest international cricketer of all time. He is a latecomer to the big stage and from a humble, rural background, having worked in a factory making plastic piping after a lack of opportunities at first-class level.

But former fast-bowling coach Aaqib Javed gave him a second chance and he sped through the ranks before making his national debut three years ago. To say that he extracts extra bounce would be to say that Vernon Philander hits the seam often but, like a thoroughbred Great Dane, there remain doubts about his physique and ability to last the course of a Test match. (Not that large dogs play cricket.) Still, if he plays just one or two of the Tests he has the ability to shape the course of the series.

Tanvir Ahmed (34) is another late-comer to international cricket – and the only Test cricketer (to date) born in Kuwait. Not quick but immensely experienced and imbued with endless stamina, he can do the donkey work in a quiet and unobtrusive manner that would allow the other pacemen to attack. But he also has more than 500 first-class wickets, so he’s not to be taken lightly. Look out for his batting, too – a retro throwback to the Caribbean swashbucklers of the 1980s.

Pakistan teams can dissolve faster than Enos. Even faster than New Zealand did last month. But that seems unlikely with this squad. Well led, ambitious and unburdened by big names, they could provide a stiffer test to the world number one than most people expect.

The first Test in the series starts on February 1 at the Wanderers in Johannesburg

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