The desert air in the UAE is smouldering with anticipation as Pakistan get ready to take on South Africa in the first of two Test matches. Pakistan is emerging from another cloud of controversy with the flight of their wicketkeeper Zulqarnain Haider due to claimed death threats. Pakistan's woes were compounded with defeat in the final one-dayer against their opponents in which they were consiged to a 2-3 loss in the series.
Pakistan would not be coming into the Test series with a lot confidence in the longer version of the game. They went down tamely to England 3-1 in Ole Blighty and this upcoming series will be their first without the tainted trio of Salman Butt, Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir, who still stand suspended by the ICC over allegations of spot-fixing.
Their replacements are not very inspiring. Misbah-ul-Haq, whose last Test outing was the Sydney disaster, takes on the roles of captain - Pakistan's fourth in one year alone - and he will have a lot of work in order to justify his new position. Mohammad Sami, who hasn't really made an impact as a wicket-taker is back in the side. Younis Khan, who is playing his first Test in over a year, has also returned to ostensibly add substance to the top order. But his average of 25.42 in ODIs since that time, suggests that his prowess at batting might well be on the decline.
Pakistan doesn't seem to have the right stuff as they go into a Test series against the No. 2 team in the world - South Africa. The Proteas will probably be considering the Tests against Pakistan as nothing more than a warm-up before they return home to face India.
They possess an incisive pair of pacemen in Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel who can be deadly with the new ball. Meanwhile, South Africa's top and middle order are looking as solid as ever. Coming off a fantastic one-day series against Pakistan in which he was awarded Man of the Series, Hashim Amla is no doubt riding high on confidence and has shown that he has what it takes to demolish the opposition's bowling. He would get able support from a resurgent Graeme Smith as well as from the robust J P Duminy and A B de Villiers.
Among South Africa's men to watch out for is wicketkeeper Mark Bouncher. The gloveman has racked up more dismissals in Test cricket than any other wicketkeeper with 504 scalps to his name in 134 matches. He will undoubtedly be looking to build further on his achievement. Meanwhile, Jacques Kallis is the danger man for Pakistan simply by virtue of being the most experienced remaining campaigner against the side. He has notched up 1,149 runs in 22 innings with an average of over 60, including six fifties and four hundreds.
For Pakistan, their key men will be Saeed Ajmal and Abdur Rehman. Even though the former failed to impress in the one-day series, the spin-friendly conditions at Dubai should suit him as well as Rehman.
South Africa has indicated that they will in all likelihood be playing two spinners in Johan Botha and Paul Harris since the pitch conditions are conducive for spin bowling. Meanwhile Alviro Peterson will probably open the innings, pushing Hashim Amla into the middle-order while Ashwell Prince will probably come in ahead of J P Duminy.
So, the stage is set for an intriguing encounter between the underdogs Pakistan and the favourites South Africa. One will have to wait and see which side will be able to better keep their cool in the sapping desert heat.