South Africa's unbeaten run of 15 Tests have finally come to an end. Pakistan clinched a seven-wicket win in Abu Dhabi on Thursday, marking the first loss for South Africa since they lost to Sri Lanka in Durban in 2011.
For Pakistan, it was a remarkable turnaround after losing to Zimbabwe just a few weeks ago. For South Africa, it was a catastrophe of batting proportions, a "batastrophe," if you will.
In the first innings, two batsmen scored over 70 percent of South Africa's runs. In their second innings, two batsmen scored 59 percent of their runs, with one of those batsmen being a lower-order player. That, for a No. 1-ranked Test side, is a catastrophe, and that's exactly where things went wrong for the visitors.
There was little wrong with the pitch. Pakistan proved that much when they managed to score over 400 with two players managing centuries and two managing half-centuries. Sure, there was the odd delivery which turned square, and Mohammed Irfan was very threatening early on with the extra pace and bounce he extracted, but overall, it was a very good Test match pitch.
South Africa have not played Test cricket in seven months, and it showed in the batsmen. A number of players had played some form of limited-overs cricket recently, and others busied themselves with county stints, but those who had not been in action for a while were clearly a little bit shaken.
Barring the one warm-up game South Africa had, Graeme Smith had not played since May. Alviro Petersen had played some cricket for the Lions in the recently concluded Champions League, but his form in the longer format of the game had been shaky for a while. He's not passed 30 in eight innings.
Hashim Amla had a good stint with English county Surrey before he linked up with South Africa, and he last played on 24 September, scoring 151. He managed 50 in the warm-up game and clearly looked far more settled than some of his teammates.
His 118 in the first innings was one of the few saving graces from a batting perspective. Undone by a brilliant delivery in the second innings, Amla's time in the middle on the county se up was clearly beneficial.
Jacques Kallis last played competitive cricket in May and, much like with Smith, it showed. Despite a good knock in the warm-up game, where he scored 70, at Test match intensity, Kallis looked out of sorts batting. He failed to reach double figures, incidentally, for the first time since the last time South Africa lost.
AB de Villiers, JP Duminy and Faf du Plessis were all part of South Africa's limited-overs team to tour Sri Lanka. De Villiers and Duminy also played in the Champions League; du Plessis did not. It's been five Test innings since du Plessis passed 30.
That the batsmen are short of time in the middle is clear. Those who have played some sort of cricket recently looked far more competent, and they made a significant contribution. Another one or two warm-up games would have done a world of good for those who have been out of action, but there is little time to wallow.
There's not even time for another warm-up game before the second Test begins. What's worse, South Africa might have to play the second Test without Amla, whose wife is pregnant and is due to give birth around the same time as the second Test is due to begin. Their best batsman from the first Test will then be dispatched to "daddy duty" back home, and it leaves the team in a whole new pickle.
The No. 3 position is crucial. Dean Elgar is the likely option to fill in the slot, but he, too, is short on practice, and he is not a natural No. 3.
There are a few options:
- Shift everyone up a number and let Elgar slot in lower down the order
- Slot Elgar in at No. 3, hoping that he can adapt
- Bat De Villiers or Duminy at three and bat Elgar lower down at No. 7, shifting Du Plessis up.
- Let Elgar open, his usual position, and drop Petersen down the order a bit. Although Petersen has not batted at three in Tests before, protection against the new ball and a little more time to get settled might up his confidence
Whatever happens, South Africa's batting will need to shape up. Although Pakistan are only ever one wicket away from a collapse, they cannot be over-reliant on that happening. It will be an acid Test for the batsmen, who have become used to the luxury of their bowlers doing most of the work on bowler-friendly pitches.