The series will also afford a chance to South Africa and Pakistan to get back to winning ways after their Test series losses to Sri Lanka and New Zealand respectively.
As the two sides get ready for a highly anticipated battle, we look at the three key battles that could prove decisive in the series.
KAGISO RABADA V FAKHAR ZAMAN
South Africa might have to make do without the services of Vernon Philander and Lungi Ngidi but there is still plenty of firepower in the hosts’ pace battery to unsettle the Pakistan batsmen.
Their chief pace threat will come from No1 ranked Test bowler Kagiso Rabada who has established himself as the undisputed leader of the bowling attack over the past couple of years.
With 151 scalps to his name in just 32 Tests, Rabada is as elite a pacer as they come in Test cricket. The 23-year-old will be tasked with providing the hosts with the early breakthroughs with the new ball and for that, he will need to get the better of Pakistan opener Fakhar Zaman.
Fakhar has been tremendous for Pakistan in limited-overs cricket and scored a combined 160 runs against Australia on his Test debut. The left-hander loves throwing caution to the wind with his attacking approach and his duel with Rabada is bound to be an intriguing one.
DALE STEYN V AZHAR ALI
Pakistan’s shaky batting line-up will be put to the test by the hosts in the series and the visitors will be hoping Azhar Ali can put his experience to good use. The 33-year-old veteran is the most experienced among all of Pakistan’s batsmen and will be the linchpin around whom the visitors’ batting will revolve.
The right-hander is currently in fine nick following scores of 81 and 134 in the final two Tests against New Zealand. He warmed up nicely for the South Africa battle with a century in Pakistan’s sole warm-up game.
The Pakistan veteran will have to contend with the challenge posed by Dale Steyn who is bidding to become South Africa’s all-time leading Test wicket-taker. In the absence of Philander and Ngidi, the burden on Steyn to perform will be much greater and the 35-year-old pacer has been showing signs of getting back to his best in recent times after overcoming his injury troubles.
This battle of the two veterans promises to be a fascinating one and its impact on the final outcome of the series will be huge.
HASHIM AMLA V YASIR SHAH
Pacers are expected to rule the roost in South African conditions but it would take a brave man to discount the possible threat posed by Yasir Shah. The Pakistan leg-spinner has been backed by skipper Sarfraz Ahmed to spin a web around the Proteas batsmen and he comes into the series on the back of impressive form.
Shah picked up a staggering 29 wickets across the three Tests against the Kiwis including a record 14-wicket match haul in Dubai. The 32-year-old can extract life out of any track and will be Pakistan’s biggest threat at Centurion in the absence of the injured Mohammad Abbas.
Shah will look to get on top of Hashim Amla early on with the South African stalwart struggling for form. The best player of spin in the South African ranks, Amla has averaged less than 25 in the calendar year with no century.
Amla will be desperate to get out of this unprecedented lean spell but he will first have to survive the Shah test.
The tourists are chasing a first Test series win in South Africa in what is their sixth tour of the country and Sarfraz feels Arthur’s experience will come in mighty handy in the upcoming three Tests. South Africa-born Arthur had a five-year stint as Proteas coach between 2005 and 2010.
“We have clarity about what we’ll do because we have a coach who has coached in South Africa. If you talk about the history of Centurion pitches the fourth innings is very difficult here. Whoever wins the toss would like to bat first. No one would want to bat in the fourth innings if they’re chasing over 200,” the Pakistan skipper was quoted as saying by ESPNcricinfo.
Pakistan come into the series on the back of a 1-2 ‘home’ loss against New Zealand but Sarfraz is confident leg-spinner Yasir Shah can provide his side the edge against the formidable Proteas.
“If you talk about South Africa’s Test series against Sri Lanka recently, the pitch was different. All foreign teams struggle there, just like all Asian teams come to South Africa and struggle here,” the wicketkeeper-batsman stated.
“Here, the conditions are different but we do have a world-class spinner. He took 200 wickets in 33 Tests and we know South Africa haven’t played a top-quality leg-spinner in three years. So we have an advantage, we have Yasir Shah, and hopefully they will struggle against him,” he continued.
The visitors will have to make do without the services of their star seamer Mohammad Abbas who has been ruled out of the opening Test due to his shoulder injury. For now, the Pakistan skipper is hoping that the green cover on the Centurion pitch is reduced come Boxing Day.
“There’s a lot of green grass here. Hopefully they will cut it so it looks better,” said Sarfraz.
Pakistan are searching for a maiden Test series win on South African soil with their previous five tours of the country yielding only two wins out of a possible 12.
With the odds stacked against the tourists, we take a look at the key talking points ahead of the series opener at Centurion.
BOTH SIDES REELING UNDER INJURIES
South Africa were handed an early setback prior to the start of the series with star seamer Vernon Philander being ruled out of the Boxing Day clash with a fractured finger.
With Lungi Ngidi too sidelined until February with an injury, South Africa’s pace reserves have been severely depleted. The hosts are not the only side to be crippled by injuries to key seamers with Pakistan too receiving a setback with regards to Mohammad Abbas.
The prolific seamer has failed to fully recover from his shoulder injury and will miss the Boxing Day Test along with leg-spinner Shadab Khan.
With Philander and Abbas out of the reckoning, both sides will line up at the Centurion without their most potent seamers and that is bound to take some sheen off the clash.
STEYN ON THE CUSP OF SOUTH AFRICA HISTORY
It has taken some time coming but the milestone of becoming South Africa’s highest wicket-taker in the Test format is one that is finally in Dale Steyn‘s sights.
The veteran pacer is currently level with Shaun Pollock on 421 Test scalps and barring any disaster, should break the record he has been chasing for more than three years now. Multiple long-term injuries in recent times have derailed Steyn’s bid severely with Pollock’s record now standing for a decade since he played his last Test for South Africa.
The 35-year-old pacer will fancy his chances on a Centurion track where he has an excellent record. In nine Tests at the venue, Steyn has picked up 56 scalps at an average of just over 17 including a five-wicket match haul in his side’s innings win over Pakistan in 2013.
GOLDEN CHANCE FOR PAKISTAN
Pakistan’s past track record in South Africa does not augur well for skipper Sarfraz Ahmed and the fact that they come into the series one the back of a ‘home’ loss to New Zealand does not help matters.
However, the visitors will know that they have an excellent shot at making history in South Africa with the hosts still coming to grips with the retirement of AB de Villiers. While De Villiers is no longer available for international selection, top-order batsman Hashim Amla has been struggling for runs.
Amla’s average over the past one year is less than 25 with the Proteas stalwart yet to register a Test ton in 2018. While Amla is woefully out of form, middle-order batsman Temba Bavuma is a doubt for the series opener with hamstring niggles.
When all these are factored in with Philander’s injury, it makes the case of a potential Pakistan upset even stronger. Their past record notwithstanding, Sarfraz and his men might not get a better chance of attaining their first Test victory in South Africa in over 10 years.