It is a label applied repeatedly, but if Pakistan's ability to be dreadful and brilliant on successive days, and fight about it among each other – often publicly – wasn't a reality, then they wouldn't have to put up with being called unpredictable and volatile.
Perhaps they enjoy the reputation? It can't be a bad thing for the opposition to be wary of you even when you're thinly staffed and playing poorly.
Barely a month ago, they were beaten in a Test match by Zimbabwe and yet, somehow, there isn't a pundit anywhere who doesn't believe they can beat the best Test team in the world when they begin the first of two Test matches in the United Arab Emirates this Monday. The first is in Abu Dhabi, the second in Dubai.
To do so, they will require a few monumental individual performances because, more often than not, the sum of their parts is less than their singular value.
Those individuals can be identified now: spinners Saeed Ajmal and Abdur Rehman, skipper Misbah ul Haq and senior batsman Younis Khan.
The pitches at both venues are usually armour-plated, baked as hard as pottery rather than as dry as dust, as happens elsewhere in extreme heat – notably India.
But they can be "broken" through lack of water and neglect at least a week before the match, and they will need to be for Pakistan to exploit their strongest asset.
AB de Villiers admitted that the Proteas are expecting exactly that. "We are expecting them to be far more conducive to spin than they were three years ago, and we are adapting our game plan accordingly," he said during the team's only warm-up match, which finished on Thursday.
If that is the case, then the rehabilitated, attacking leg spin of Imran Tahir must be a consideration. His analysis in the last Test he played (0-270 against Australia in Adelaide) still makes the eyes water, but there was no point in taking him if he wasn't worthy of a second chance. Whether he or Robin Peterson plays, there is the comfort of knowing a very handy second spinner is guaranteed, with JP Duminy set to bat at number seven.
Vulnerable top order
The "home" side have a weak and vulnerable top order, so they're unlikely to prevail in a flat-pitch batathon, even if they do choose to play for draws from the outset, as they did three years ago.
And they surely won't back their inexperienced (but talented) attack on anything with a suggestion of pace or bounce against Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander and Morné Morkel.
So, spin and turning wickets it will be. In which case, the innings played by 38-year-old Jacques Kallis against Pakistan "A" on Tuesday was of more than passing interest.
He belted six fours and four sixes, mostly against the spinners, in a knock of 70 from 99 balls. Whether he was deliberately sending a message or not, it was impossible not to take heed.
"It was one of the characteristics from last season, the type of ‘no barriers' cricket that we played as a group," said Graeme Smith.
"It was an expressive brand of cricket which held no fear or limits. We don't want to change those key elements this season. We bowled teams out for 50-odd and batted positively. We were quite good at moving the game forward last season. That's the brand of cricket we want to play," Smith said.
A team with a narrow lead at the top of any league table is understandably nervous about losing their advantage. But a team with a huge lead has little or no fear of failure. They can afford to take risks, safe in the knowledge that the occasional slip won't be fatal.
?The Proteas' lead at the top of the Test rankings is huge. "We have moved on from that fear," admitted Smith. "Last year, it was really tight at the top, but we went on to become number one by playing aggressive, positive cricket.
"Our first challenge is to be solid for the next few weeks. We haven't played Test cricket in a long time. Of course teams are gunning for you, but we all need to pull together and contribute.
"I certainly don't feel pressure sitting here as the number one team in the world. I'm grateful and enjoying it. It's great to have the mace and we are all very proud of it."
After beating England in dramatic and emphatic style 14 months ago, followed by drubbings for New Zealand and Pakistan on home soil, Smith spoke about the team's legacy.
It is understandable, given the overwhelming nature of their results. It is equally understandable that such sentiments are much-needed ice in the desert heat.
"We haven't really spoken about that. We just want to have a good series and start the season well. We have set a standard for ourselves and some people have suggested it is impossible to maintain, but that is our goal.
"But you still have to take it one step at a time. We learned a long time ago not to get too far ahead of ourselves," Smith said.