The biggest challenge in South Africa for subcontinental batsmen is the short ball, but Asad Shafiq had decided it was going to be his most prolific scoring option. Coming in to bat with Pakistan still trailing by 227 runs and staring an innings defeat in the face, Shafiq resumed the positive approach he had adopted in the first innings, refusing to let an all-pace South Africa attack bully him with the short length. All told, 46 of his 88 runs came off just 52 short balls, with the 32-year old admitting it had been a specific strategy on his part.
“Yes, that was my plan, I wanted to take on the short ball and play the pull shot because there was no square leg,” Shafiq said. “If you want to score quickly you have to play the pull shot, so I had that in mind. I think the pitch was a bit easier today, the ball didn’t hit too many cracks. The positive mindset helped me a lot to play my shots and the pitch was a bit easier today than the first and second day.”
Shafiq has previous here in Cape Town. On Pakistan’s ill-fated tour of South Africa in 2013, he and Younis Khan had struck brilliant first-innings centuries, helping take the team closer to a win in South Africa than they have ever been before or since 2007, the occasion of their last Test success here. While he said that knock had been on his mind, he also believed he had been timing the ball well enough to help him believe a big score was around the corner.
“When we first came here five years ago, I scored a century which I had on my mind. I was playing well, and I was confident. The ball was coming on very nicely to my bat and it was just a matter of time I converted it into a big innings. I think the wickets here are such that if you get in, you can play shots and you get good value for those shots on a good outfield. So my plan was I had to see off the first 20 balls so if the balls lie in my zone, I felt I would play my shots.
“They have a great bowling attack that puts the ball into the right areas, so you have to be patient at the same time as you attack. It’s not easy to bat against the South African bowling attack. They are world-class bowlers. I was trying to just play my shots if the ball is in the area.”
Shafiq acknowledged the challenge of playing against what he called “great bowlers”, but armed with arguably the most gifted technique in the Pakistan line-up, he has more scoring opportunities than most. He has been adept for much of his career at cutting balls close to his body, as well as using his low centre of gravity to keep his balance while attacking the short ball square and either side of the wicket. While for much of his career he hasn’t played on surfaces where the ball bounces quite so high, a solid technique, as well as the adventurous spirit he lately seems to be exhibiting, goes a long way.
“You have to take a risk. Without taking risks, you cannot play your shots.” he said. “Dale Steyn was bowling really well especially into his third spell, and the ball was swinging. You have to be attacking when you get the ball outside off stump. If you see your innings through past the first 20-25 balls, you can see the ball better and adjust according to the length of the ball better.”
It was a bittersweet day for Shafiq, though, not least because Pakistan are now destined for inevitable defeat tomorrow morning. But another source of despondency was that the plucky counterattacking knock he played failed to turn into a second hundred in as many matches at this venue. Just 12 short of the mark, he was drawn into edging one outside off stump off Vernon Philander’s bowling, leaving him stranded agonisingly close to a hundred no one in either camp would have begrudged him.
Shafiq is used to scoring big in games Pakistan have ended up on the wrong side of. Had he got to the mark today, this would have been the seventh time he had scored a Test hundred in a losing cause; Azhar Ali, the next-most prolific in this department, has five such scores. For context, Younis Khan scored seven losing hundreds through his significantly lengthier career, while Misbah-ul-Haq never experienced defeat after registering a three-figure score. As with much of what has happened in his career, Shafiq was taking this in his stride too.
“I am disappointed because I was playing well and my team needed a big century,” he said. “As an individual, I also wanted to score a century, but it’s a part of the game, it happens.”