Dubai: Preserving a seven-year unbeaten away record in Test series became harder for South Africa when top-ranked batsman Hashim Amla was ruled out of the second match against Pakistan starting on Wednesday.
Then it became doubtful, when top-ranked bowler Dale Steyn was struggling with a tight right hamstring. Amla flew home after South Africa were crushed in the first Test in Abu Dhabi, to be with his expecting wife, who hasn't yet given birth to their second child.
Steyn felt his hamstring pull during training on Sunday, and will be given until the morning of the match to prove his fitness.
"Obviously, it's a challenge to be without your best players," South Africa captain Graeme Smith said on Tuesday.
"To lose guys like Dale and Hashim is a loss and we need to be honest about that.
"But, you know, we will be right behind the guys who get the opportunity and hopefully they will provide the performances that are needed to win the Test."
If Steyn doesn't come right, either fast bowler Rory Kleinveldt or legspinner Imran Tahir could replace him, while left-handed batsman Dean Elgar is almost certain to fill the huge void left by Amla in the middle order.
In the four-day loss last week, South Africa's first defeat in two years, they showed signs of rustiness after having not played a Test since February, when they whitewashed Pakistan 3-0 at home.
Amla's century in the first innings and AB de Villiers' 90 in the second were the only batting highlights, and the seam bowlers were guilty of too many harmless short-pitched deliveries on a slow pitch.
"There are always going to be challenges after six months of not playing Test cricket," Smith said.
"We lacked a little bit of edge in Abu Dhabi and we have got to try to get that edge back.
"We know we are a team that has won all around the world and we know we have the ability to win, it's just about getting ourselves mentally and skill wise to that point."
Barring Amla's 118, the rest of the top six batsmen combined for just 100 runs in the first innings total of 249 against some quality seam bowling from Mohammad Irfan and Junaid Khan, followed by spinners Zulfiqar Babar and Saeed Ajmal.
"Pakistani spinners didn't dominate the game ... they held the game for periods of time and we were unable to break free," Smith said.
Opening batsman Khurram Manzoor (146) scored a maiden hundred and Shan Masood was impressive in his debut knock of 75 as Pakistan looked the only winners after posting 442 in the first innings.
Captain Misbah-ul-Haq said he wanted to prove a point that Pakistan could perform against any top side especially after critics came down hard on the team when it lost its previous Test to lowly Zimbabwe.
With South Africa vulnerable, Pakistan don't want to blow a chance to win a Test series from South Africa for the first time in a decade.
"We really want to win this," Misbah said. "We really want to prove that we are a good enough side to win series against a top side in the world."
Pakistan have not lost a Test since they adopted United Arab Emirates as their home venue in 2009 for security reasons back home. Like South Africa, England were No. 1 when they arrived last year and were swept 3-0.
"We need to respect Pakistan ... they have created a sort of fortress for themselves in terms of their performances (in UAE)," Smith said. "For us it's a big challenge to go out and beat them here and beat the streak that they have here."
Pakistan are likely to stick to two seamers and two spinners, which means left-arm spinner Abdul Rehman could miss out again in favor of Babar, who took five wickets in his debut Test.
"We really want to make sure that we don't want to waste even one of them (spinners)," Misbah said.
"We want to utilize both (spinners) in a smart way ... so whatever we feel that is good for the (team) combination we will just give him a chance. The other one (misses out), it's not a problem, we will utilize him in future."
Misbah said he was trying to make sure his team wasn't complacent, and doesn't blow a golden opportunity.
"After the first game they know what mistakes they have done so they will be really working hard to improve that," he said. "Winning on a consistent basis is what we are looking for, and that's what makes you a better team and a better player."