Pakistan bowling coach Azhar Mahmood admitted that his side could have bowled a lot better in the morning, as South Africa set the visitors a colossal 382 to avoid a whitewash in Johannesburg. He also added, however, that the pitch appeared to have flattened out, allowing South Africa a degree of comfort with the bat they had not enjoyed on Saturday.
“We could have bowled a lot better today, and there were patches we didn’t bowl well in Centurion and Cape Town as well,” he said. “But as you see, our bowling line-up is very inexperienced, and this is a learning curve for them. Apart from Amir, no one came here before. These are different pitches, different atmosphere, so it’s a learning curve for them.
“I think the pitch flattened out a bit. For the last three days, all sides opted for the heavy roller and the pitch flattened out. I think our plan was to get them out for less than 50 or 60 runs today, so we’d have to chase 270 or 280. But credit goes to de Kock and Amla. They played really well. They left the ball well, and when they got opportunities, they hit boundaries. On this ground, there are a lot of boundary options. You don’t get lot of runs by singles, because boundaries can be had on both sides.”
South Africa had begun the day still slightly precariously perched at 135 for 5, but 129 from Quinton de Kock, a half-century from Hashim Amla, and contributions from the lower order took South Africa to 304. It was de Kock’s innings however – his first century in two years – that most impressed Azhar.
“De Kock is a class act. He’s one of the best players in the world. We know when he’s at the crease he will get runs, because he likes ball on bat. He has the ability to hit good balls for four, and the innings he played was very good.”
Pakistan still need 232 runs to win, with seven wickets in hand. The chase, if it were to be completed, would break all sorts of records, but will require the Pakistan batsmen to show a command over South Africa’s all-pace attack that they have not come close to achieving. Mahmood, however, still felt his side were in with a shot, pointing to the sturdy little 48-run partnership brewing between Babar Azam and Asad Shafiq.
“We’ve done this before [in Pallekelle in 2015, where Pakistan also chased 382]. Babar and Asad are batting really well. If they bat for a long period of time, we’ve got a really good chance. Like I said in the morning, when you get 50, you have to turn it into 70, and then on to 100. If one of these guys can get a hundred like de Kock did, then I think we’ve got a chance.”
Another slight peculiarity of the day was legspinner Shadab Khan, who had enjoyed turn since day one, not being called upon until the 34th over of the day. He sent down just under five overs, but caused the batsmen the greatest discomfort during that time, taking two wickets, including de Kock’s. Azhar admitted he may well have come on earlier, but said that the early swing made Pakistan stick with pace.
“That’s the decision we had to take. The ball was doing a bit and there were a lot of plays and misses. We were hoping the fast bowler did the job for us and the captain thought that was the way to go. But when he came back, he bowled really well. I’m satisfied with the bowlers’ performance overall this series. As you can see, not only did the Pakistan batting line-up struggle, but the South Africans did too.”
The issue about the performance of the bowlers has become a major talking point over the past week, with Sarfraz making his frustrations with their reduced pace obvious after Pakistan succumbed to a nine-wicket defeat in Cape Town. On the first day here, Amir, too, had made it clear that he would not take questions on the subject, abruptly ending a press conference when asked. But Azhar, who has been in charge of the bowlers, used the example of Shaheen Afridi, sitting this game out with an injury, to illustrate their workload of late.
“Look at Shaheen: he’s a young guy. He only played six first-class games, out of which three were Test matches. He’s bowled a lot, and we’ve been playing Test-match cricket for the last three months. The boys played eight Test matches in a few weeks. It’s tough on a young guy, because he’s not used to the workload. We miss him, but we have to manage his workload for the ODIs as well, because he’ll be crucial in the ODIs for us.”
Danyal Rasool is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @Danny61000
ESPN Sports Media Ltd.