Born in Johannesburg, schooled at Westville Boys’ High, and fluent in Afrikaans, Mickey Arthur is as South African as they come. But Arthur hasn’t been here for five years, having last visited for a family funeral, and his intentions for this homecoming are clear: “I’ll make no secret of it, I’d love to come back here with a Pakistan team that is very talented, and win,” Arthur said after Pakistan arrived for three Tests, five ODIs and three T20Is.
Arthur’s first Christmas in the country of his birth for half a decade won’t involve much of the usual festive celebrations, and he insisted he “does not do” holidays. “Cricket is 24/7 for me,” Arthur added . “This is hard work. In fact, I’m working even harder here. But it is great to come back into an environment that I’m so familiar with.”
Arthur has brought a Test squad that is rebuilding around the experienced core of captain Sarfraz Ahmed, Azhar Ali, Mohammad Amir and Yasir Shah, and Arthur reckons they have a “good chance” of securing a first ever Test series win in the country.
“We’ve come here with a very exciting young team. It’s a team that’s starting to gel well together. We’ve played unbelievable white-ball cricket. Our 50-over team is on the up, our T20 team has been exceptional, but we sit trying to build up a Test team. It’s a young Test team at the moment, but a very exciting Test team. We really think we have a good chance out here.”
The last time Pakistan toured, playing three Tests in 2013, AB de Villiers scored two hundreds and was Player of the Series. There is a very different look to South Africa’s current squad, and Arthur suggested that while South Africa’s batting is still good without de Villiers, Pakistan’s bowling is better than it was five years ago.
“They’re a good batting line-up, they are, but we’re a very good bowling line-up. So we do feel we can make some inroads there, for sure. Our bowling attack is incredibly skillful in all conditions. The one thing we do know is that we’ve got a bowling attack that can take 20 wickets comfortably. Our challenge is getting ourselves to 350, 400. If we can get runs on the board, we know that we can get 20 wickets and we can bowl in all conditions.”
The visiting batsmen will be aiming to move ahead of the inconsistencies that saw them twice score more than 300 and twice being rolled for under 200 in the recent 2-1 loss to New Zealand. “I hate that word ‘inconsistency’ because we’re trying everything to try and make us more and more consistent,” said Arthur.
Indeed, the Pakistan coach is realistic about the challenge facing his batsmen, but also laid out a statement of intent for the current batting crop. “You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to work out that the South African bowling attack is exceptionally good. We know that that’s going to be a real challenge.
“I’ll make a statement now, that our young batting group now bat better outside the UAE than they do in the UAE. There’s some very talented young batsmen there. They don’t stand on leg stump anymore. Our batsmen get to off stump, they cover the bounce, they cover the pace and they cover the swing. And they play very well in these conditions.”
As for the lower order, which folded so spectacularly to hand New Zealand a win and the early advantage in the series in the first Test in Abu Dhabi, Arthur joked: “They’re going to get a lot of hard nets.”
For Sarfraz, the key ingredient for his batsmen to prosper on South African tracks will be to play “positive cricket”, a mantra that he broke down thus: “You have to show intent. Positive is not just to play your shots all around the world, just like Fakhar Zaman. Only Fakhar Zaman can play like Fakhar Zaman, and we tell him to play his own game. But the other players also have to show intent and play positive cricket. You have to, to win series outside your country.”
After a warm-up against an Invitation XI, Pakistan’s tour will start with a historic Boxing Day Test match at Centurion – the first time that the annual fixture has moved inland from the coast since readmission. It’s a ground Arthur knows well, having played 17 times there during his domestic career with Griqualand West and Free State teams, but the character of the Centurion pitch has changed dramatically since his playing days.
“It’s changed totally,” Arthur agreed . “I was watching the Test match last year, and it looked like you were playing in the UAE. The surface was completely bare. I’m not sure what’s going on over there. If it does turn, then happy days. I’m not sure it will, but I watched the [Mzansi Super League] T20 game the other night, and the square did look a lot better. We just hope for good wickets. If there’s a bit of grass, then happy days as well, because we’ve got the bowlers to expose that.”
Before the first ball is bowled at Centurion, Arthur will no doubt catch up with friends and family in South Africa, and for him, South Africa is a “lekker plek om te kom speel (a great place to come and play),” but he doubled down on his intentions here. There will be, he says, “no holiday. I’ll enjoy only if we win.”