South Africa v Pakistan, 1st Test, Johannesburg, 3rd day
Pakistan scramble up learning curve
The temperament and skill shown by Asad Shafiq and Misbah-ul-Haq may not save the match but should benefit Pakistan for the rest of the series
One of the most appealing aspects of cricket lies in the battle of wits between batsman and bowler even when it seems like there is little going on. Most of the third day of this Test illustrated that.
After a capitulation in the first innings that even their coach Dav Whatmore forgave because it was prompted by a "relentless" pace-bowling onslaught, Pakistan had to find a way to bat against this South Africa attack. Few line-ups have been able to provide a prototype, especially when conditions favour the bowlers, and the lessons Pakistan learnt on Sunday are theirs to build on and keep for the rest of the series.
Perhaps the most important of them was that it is possible to get the better of the South Africa attack but it takes a careful blend of positivity and patience. If one or the other is applied even slightly incorrectly, the formula fails.
Getting the mix absolutely correct will not happen all the time. In fact, it may not happen even most of the time and the only way it will happen more often than not is when players are experienced enough. A large number of Pakistan's line-up are not primarily because many of them are on their first tour to South Africa.
"We have nine out of eleven playing here for the first time so it has been a learning curve right from the beginning," Whatmore said. "But today the wicket settled down and a combination of the same two factors - a relentless bowling attack and swing - went in the opposite direction and so we did not have the same result."
Whatmore's statement may seem a little cryptic at first reading. But he seems to be indicating that South Africa's bowlers will have to tire at some point and that may come when the conditions demand more of them. If a batting side can wait it out long enough for that to happen, they may be able to get away for a while.
Nasir Jamshed provided the perfect example of that. The debutant opener bided his time but kept scoring at a good rate and showed the ability to capitalise on anything short, wide or too full. He looked as though he could continue, but eventually the intent became too much. He tried a glory shot to get to fifty, but picked out a fielder.
If the milestone wasn't looming, one can only imagine Jamshed would have been more circumspect. Whatmore let him know that irrespective of a maiden fifty on the horizon, he should have been. "I was very upset with Jamshed," he said. "I keep forgetting it's his debut because he has been around the team for a while but I had few words with him and he understands it's for his own good."
Asad Shafiq and Misbah-ul-Haq have since displayed some of the traits needed to overcome South Africa. Both have shown sound temperament but both could have been out as well. That's why, AB de Villiers thinks, no matter how comfortable a batsman looks at the crease against the South Africa attack, he is never entirely so.
"With the variation in our attack, you always feel you could get a good ball," he said. "So I would be positive if I was batting against us because there is no use in just sticking it out there. But you also have to read the situation and understand that at times you can't dominate the bowlers and at times you can and when you can, then you have to have the guts and the skill to do it. The best players in the world can do that."
Michael Clarke and Sachin Tendulkar have scored memorable centuries in South Africa, while Thilan Samaweera and Dean Brownlie are some of the more recent players to have followed suit. All of them relied on the right combination of intent and endurance. Pakistan need one or more of their line-up to find the same.
But they face more obstacles than just getting the balance right. A new ball is due after five overs on Monday morning and South Africa will see that as an opportunity to finish the job. In the first Test against New Zealand in Cape Town, South Africa needed 22 overs with the second ball to end the resistance, in the second, it took just 5.3 overs.
Pakistan's batsmen have already shown themselves to be vulnerable against the new ball, especially if there is movement. Rain is forecast for much of the next two days, humidity levels are expected to be high and Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander will be a dangerous combination.
To counter them, Pakistan will need the temperament of today many times over. Shafiq is one that Whatmore is looking at to hold the fort. "He is definitely one of a few of our boys for the future. His concentration today was pretty good and we hope he gets a good hundred out there," he said.
With the amount of time left in the game, the equation is simple. If Pakistan bat through, they will win but South Africa only need six balls to achieve the same. While de Villiers hopes for a finish "somewhere after lunch" on the fourth day, Whatmore would not be drawn into what he called "result-oriented predictions".
All he is wants it is to "see how far we can take it" because he knows that whatever else Pakistan learn they will be able to apply it in the next two matches. "What's important is that this gives a lot of the players confidence for the next two Tests," Whatmore said. How matters unravel to end this match will determine how much conviction Pakistan can take into the rest of the series.