Abu Dhabi: The ebbs and flows of Test cricket were in full evidence on the first day in Abu Dhabi, ending with Pakistan the slightly happier side despite Hashim Amla adding to his rapidly increasing century count. Pakistan’s new-ball bowlers produced the breakthroughs in the morning session, then Amla and the middle order made the pitch seem utterly docile in the second session, before the spinners sparked a collapse in the final session.
Few sights are as reassuring for South Africa fans as seeing Amla in the middle. He produced a typically graceful innings, full of whiplash drives through the off and was comfortable camping on the backfoot and playing late against the spinners. As usual, he walked across the stumps to flick balls well outside off to the leg side and serenely progressed to his 20th Test century.
There were two main partnerships he was involved in, as he set about stabilising the South Africa innings after three early wickets, first 61 with a fluent AB de Villiers and then 95 with the returning JP Duminy. During those two stands, Pakistan’s bowling seemed to lack sting and South Africa seemed to be on autopilot as they collected the runs.
Both those alliances ended with soft dismissals. De Villiers’ was the sort that sends you scurrying to Youtube. He was looking to defend off the front foot and after an lbw appeal, he held the pose for the umpire. The ball rolled over towards slip, and the keeper Adnan Akmal signalled to Younis Khan to return the ball to the stumps. Adnan took the bails off and after many replays it was determined that de Villiers’ backfoot was just outside the crease.
Duminy was playing his first Test innings in over a year but looked in fine touch. He has had his problems against spin, but this time he began with some confident shots down the ground. He was picking Saeed Ajmal’s doosras well and was untroubled by the quicks as well, and progressed to a brisk half-century. Soon after he was dropped by Adnan off a thick edge, and even before the talk about how expensive that could prove ended, Duminy swept a harmless delivery straight to a deepish backward square leg.
It was the first wicket for left-arm-spinner Zulfiqar Babar, who at nearly 35 became Pakistan’s third oldest debutant. Babar whirls his arms like a contortionist as he reaches the bowling mark, but in his first day in the top flight, he was steady and showed few signs of nerves. With Ajmal also getting the ball to grip at the other end, Babar kept the pressure on South Africa and was rewarded with two more wickets, of Faf du Plessis and Robin Peterson. The Peterson wicket is one he’ll remember as he got the ball to turn viciously to zip between bat and pad and onto the stumps.
When Ajmal finally had reward with the wicket of Vernon Philander, South Africa had slid to 222 for 8, losing four wickets to spin for 23 runs. Amla was at the other end providing another lesson on playing the turning ball, but the lower-middle order didn’t stick around to support him.
That helped a Pakistan side which is slightly imbalanced in the absence of their regular allrounder Mohammad Hafeez. Without him, they have only four recognised bowlers and will have to otherwise depend on part-timers like Younis and Azhar Ali. It was a risky strategy especially given the concerns over whether Mohammad Irfan has the stamina needed for Test cricket.
Irfan gave a scare when he walked off in the final session, but was back after about half an hour having recovered from the cramps he suffered in the stifling heat. He was terrific in the morning session, bowling at pace and constantly attacking on the offstump line. He got his typical extra bounce which led to a wicket in the third over itself as Alviro Petersen fell to a juggling catch at short leg.
Graeme Smith has had a long absence from top-flight cricket and it showed in his first international innings back. He was left searching for the ball outside off several times, there were a couple of streaky edged boundaries behind the wicket, after the second of which he nicked one through to the keeper.
Another man returning from time away from cricket, Jacques Kallis, didn’t look as rusty as Smith, but he too didn’t make too many runs, inside-edging an incutter from Junaid Khan to the keeper for 5. It wasn’t the biggest of crowds that showed up in Abu Dhabi, but they certainly found their voice when South Africa were dithering at 43 for 3.
Though they were quietened by the stands Amla was involved in, the spinners provided them plenty to cheer towards the end of the day.
South Africa 245 for 8 (Amla 118*, Duminy 57, Babar 3-89) v Pakistan