By Mark Gleeson
(Reuters) - The prospect of placid pitches and soaring temperatures present a formidable challenge to South Africa's hopes of verifying their status as the world's top team when their test series against Pakistan begins in the United Arab Emirates on Monday.
As then top-ranked England discovered when they went to the Gulf in early 2012, conditions in Abu Dhabi and Dubai can prove the outdoing of even the slickest outfit.
South Africa took the International Cricket Council's ceremonial mace, which signifies the top test ranking, from England and have beaten Australia, New Zealand and Pakistan in series since.
Stacked against the Proteas in the two-test series will be flat batting wickets, Pakistan's experienced spin attack, extreme heat, a change of coach and the rustiness from an extended break from the longest form of the game.
South Africa's much vaunted fast bowling attack faces some hard slog if they are to make an impact, with bowling coach Allan Donald already warning they need to use the new ball to make early inroads into the Pakistan top-order.
"As a quick bowler, when times are tough, you have to be very imaginative and you've got to be gutsy," he told cricket website Cricinfo this week.
"Most importantly, the ball has to reverse."
South Africa's hopes are firmly pinned on the pace and aggression of Dale Steyn who had been rested to recover from a series of niggling injuries but got back onto the field by playing Twenty20 cricket earlier this month.
He might find himself overshadowed by Pakistani spinner Saeed Ajmal, who took 24 wickets in the 3-0 whitewash of England almost two years ago, with the pitches expected to offer the slower bowlers more assistance.
South Africa will also play a first test series under new coach Russell Domingo, who has replaced Gary Kirsten, and were last played the longest for of the game in February, when they beat Pakistan 3-0 at home.
Most players will be short of match practice, captain Graeme Smith has barely batted since recovering from an ankle injury, while middle order batsman JP Duminy is also back after a long lay-off following an Achilles' rupture.
Pakistan, however, are also in the phase of rebuilding after they suffered an embarrassing setback last month in Zimbabwe where they lost the second test to allow the hosts to draw their series 1-1 and have since shaken up their squad.
Abu Dhabi hosts the first test with the second match in Dubai from October 23-27.